Leona O'Neill: We need to stamp out child food poverty now

With child food poverty a growing problem across Britain and the north, Leona O'Neill reports on the new Children's Future Food Inquiry initiative, which is calling for the creation of an independent Children's Food Watchdog to tackle the issue

Children should not be going hungry in 2019
Leona O'Neill

MY FATHER was raised in the Bogside area of Derry by a mother who had been abandoned by her husband. They never had any money and food was scarce.

I remember him talking about this delicious soup she used to make that they would eat for every meal for days. It was "pea and ham soup without the ham", she would tell him and his brother and two sisters. He remembered being hungry quite frequently and his mother having to ration food so that they wouldn’t go a day without eating.

Those were the war years, back in the 1940s. In 2019, children should not be going to bed or getting up in the morning and going to school hungry. It is something none of us want to think about happening, and indeed something many of us don’t believe is happening – but, with the introduction of Universal Credit, let me assure you it is happening in homes all across Northern Ireland.

I have spoken to mothers who have to make £10 stretch for a week to cover groceries and anything else that might need paid in those seven days. It is no doubt hard for any of us with a secure income to imagine the terror of that scenario, but it is a harsh reality for many that needs to be faced, challenged and eradicated.

Last week Children in Northern Ireland, part of the Children’s Future Food Inquiry, launched a new report into the matter and calling for an independent Children’s Food Watchdog to lead the charge on tackling children’s food poverty throughout Britain and the north.

The Children’s Future Food Inquiry is the first attempt to directly and systematically seek the views of children and young people living in poverty here and in Britain. It has spent 12 months investigating children’s food insecurity in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, and the project’s final report pulls together direct input from hundreds of young people, frontline staff, academics and experts.

Actress Emma Thompson has given her support to the campaign and is the Children's Future Food Inquiry ambassador. She says it's time to listen to the children on this issue.

"In face of the Government’s refusal to help, the Children’s Future Food Inquiry has brought together hundreds of young people to hear about their lived experience of food poverty, and it’s time we listened to what they say.

"It’s the younger generation who will deliver the change that’s so urgently needed: we must act now to ensure every child in the UK has their right to food."

Food poverty is a growing issue in Northern Ireland. Statistics show that in 2017 there were 5,307 babies born in to poverty, with 30,750 children under the age of four and 94,378 school-aged children living in poverty.

Pauline Leeson, chief executive of Children in Northern Ireland says it is shocking that children and young people are going hungry in 2019.

"The number of people using food banks in Northern Ireland has risen by over 13 per cent in the last 12 months," she reveals.

"We now have more than 36,000 three-day emergency food packages given to people – with more than 15,000 of these going to children. We should be providing our children and young people with the best start in life – instead, we are hindering their growth, affecting their confidence and making it impossible for them to learn and develop.

"The growing number of children in Northern Ireland living in food poverty is unacceptable and more needs to be done to support these children and their families in order for them to have access to healthy and affordable food. No child should be going hungry.


"The inquiry’s report has recommendations that are easy and straightforward to implement and we must implement them now. We cannot wait any longer."

Children should not be going hungry in 2019 and families should not be going to foodbanks to survive in 2019, but sadly that is our reality. Many families are living in extreme poverty.

We need to speak up on this, we need to fight back and we need to give our young people – all of them – a fighting chance at a good start in life.

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