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Yes, summer clubs meet a purpose. But let's address the wider issue of food insecurity for low-income families

The summer holidays are slowly drawing to a close. For many families the last few weeks will have been a blur of juggling clubs, activities and day trips; time spent with family and friends, maybe a spell away and welcome break from the pressures of the school run and work, writes Jackie Brock.

But for others, school holidays can be a time of major stress and worry. How will the day be filled? Where will the money for activities or day trips come from? How to cope with the added pressure of more meals to provide during the day?

This period can become an acute problem for families on low or no income. Holidays present long periods where children who were at school learning, playing and getting fed now require an extra meal. They increase the financial pressure on families and contribute to food insecurity and we know for many children, holidays can mean missing out on a nutritious meal. Evidence suggests these impacts of school holidays can negatively affect the health, wellbeing and learning of children.

Sadly, this is not news. Summer holiday learning loss is something those of us working with children and families have been discussing and debating for a long time and it looks like the Scottish Government and the other UK nations are beginning to listen.

In England, the Department for Education just recently announced funding of £2m to tackle ‘holiday hunger’. This is welcome, but comes after a School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill tabled by MP Frank Field was deemed to require more evidence of how to develop an effective programme to address the problem.

In Scotland, we have had a little more success. The Scottish Government's Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan clearly understands the scale of the issue and its negative impacts. It also begins to identify solutions to it. A fund of £1m is being used to support provision over the holidays over the next two years. An extra £500,000 has been committed to the Fair Food Fund to ensure provision of food to those who need it is delivered in a dignified and non-stigmatising fashion.

There has also been direct action at local authority level. Earlier this year North Lanarkshire Council made headlines by announcing plans to offer free school meals to those who qualify, for 365 days of the year. Similarly Glasgow Council launched a £2m holiday food programme as well as extending free school meals to pupils in primary four (currently standard provision is P1 – P3). There are many other examples of local authorities beginning to support holiday programmes where cooking and eating together, often with all the family, is central.

Children in Scotland is proud to have been a partner with several local authoritities and their third sector and statutory agencies partners in our award-winning Food, Families, Futures programme, which is now in its third year.

This summer, we worked with four local authorities - Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, Perth and Kinross and East Lothian to work with schools, local organisations and community groups during the summer holidays. Contributing to the wider aim of tackling food poverty and its links to children’s health, wellbeing and education, the summer clubs turn schools into community hubs for a few weeks over the holidays offering something for all the family. In some, parents can help prepare fresh healthy meals with the support of qualified community chefs or community learning teams. At the same time children enjoy activities ranging from sport and play, to arts and crafts. This year, across all the participating areas, we offered around 20,300 places with clubs running from between five and 25 days.

The continued popularity, and the growth and expansion of the programme year on year, highlights the strength in our communities and the ability to collaborate, offer support and solve problems together – it is nothing short of inspiring. We also know this is a model that works. Our evaluation and recent research by the Child Poverty Action Group has shown the value of such clubs in supporting parents and children to access food and wellbeing activities at a time of stress.

We have recently received support from the Scottish Government to expand the programme with the aim of becoming sustainable – ambitious, given the financial pressures local authorities and others are under, but we are committed to helping our partners make the model viable in the long-term.

There is of course a wider debate and discussion to be had. The need for the existence of this provision is a bigger issue, and one which highlights the widespread problem of poverty in Scotland. The Scottish Government’s Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan clearly articulates the scale of the problem we face in reducing child poverty and begins to map out a more joined up approach to achieving this.

It also presents an opportunity to go further and pursue a Children and Young People's Food Strategy that is centred on improving the social, cultural and economic environment in which our children, young people and families access and consume food. Children and young people's consumption of food is hugely influenced by their family income, food available away from home, and the wider marketing of food. We need to create a secure, positive and mutually reinforcing food environment to ensure they have access to healthy food and support to make informed, positive choices.

Such a food strategy, must include a wide range of preventative policy responses including; measures to tighten regulations on high fat, salt and sugar products and measures to tackle price promotions and advertising of unhealthy products. It also must use the opportunities provided by the new Planning (Scotland) Bill to decrease the density of fast food restaurants in areas of disadvantage and create opportunities to enable local communities to access to affordable, diverse, healthy food.

If we really want to address these issues we need to work together to provide real, meaningful solutions, use the resources within our communities, and put pressure on decision makers to legislate to protect those who are most vulnerable.

Jackie Brock is Chief Executive of Children in Scotland

This blog was originally posted as a guest comment on the GTCS website on Thursday 2 August.
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