As the ambassador of the Children’s Future Food Inquiry, this week Dame Emma Thompson spoke about the challenge of accessing healthy and substantial meals for children living in poverty in the UK.
Before travelling to 10 Downing Street to present the #Right2Food Charter to parliament, Emma Thompson shared the stage in Dean’s Yard, Westminster, with six young Food Ambassadors.
The children spoke about their own experiences of food poverty and those that they had witnessed second-hand in school, in hope of giving extra weight to the charter.
Here’s what Emma Thompson had to say:
‘I associate the idea of being little and hungry with Dickens, actually. It makes me think I’m back in some 19th century novel, where children are still being pushed up chimneys.’
Hunger at home
‘I didn’t know the extent of this problem until I met the extraordinary policy adviser Lindsay Graham. I was on a show, flogging something, as usual, when Lindsay told me about “holiday hunger”. Because we all live in our little bubbles, we think: “We have free school meals. Great, that’s fine.” But what I didn’t remember was – of course – that on holidays, those people who rely on free school meals don’t get them.’
‘Not only do they not get school meals, but there’s really not much to do. Lots of their friends are away, or on holiday, and they can’t afford to join in with anything. It’s a pretty miserable time for children. I learned from Lindsay, and then from our young food ambassadors themselves, the extent of this problem: and it’s 4.1 million children living in poverty.’
‘The Trussell Report, which is about food banks, comes out today and in that report, we find that 1.5 million emergency food packs have been given out to date this year and half a million of those have been given to children directly. That means that some of those children, like some of our young ambassadors, are in the position of being carers.’
‘What we have to remember whenever we’re arguing about this is that children don’t have agency to create money to buy food for themselves. That is why they are the peculiar, particular responsibility of the state. We can’t live in this society and have this level of poverty; it is absolutely a stain upon our collective consciousness.’
In the classroom
‘Being hungry is just horrible and depressing and it interferes with your learning. It can make you feel mentally very unstable as well. A great deal of the behaviour in classrooms that people go on about is to do with children being hungry. I had a cousin who worked as a teacher and had to give it up in the end because she said, “I come to school and I know they’re hungry and have had maybe nothing for breakfast.” She said in the end: “I can’t do this any more.” She was too distressed. The teachers’ unions and the adults on the ground dealing with seeing these kids suffering are at the end of their tether. This has to be acted on right now.’
Who’s to blame?
‘I think that there’s been an enormous failure on behalf of government. Lindsay Graham’s been working on this for six years. She’s been in rooms with ministers and nothing has happened. Philip Alston came over here and did a big report on extreme poverty, which was completely rejected by the government, who thought: “He’s from Australia. What does he know?”
‘I hope that the voices of the 400 children and, in particular, our ambassadors, will finally be heard and we will stop being in a state of extreme denial about what is happening in this country to our children.’
An objective of the #Right2Food Charter is to increase the meal allowance from £2 to £4 per day in secondary schools. Read more about the Children’s Future Food Inquiry here, or search the #Right2Food hashtag on Twitter