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Tackling "poverty of opportunity" one bairn at a time

When Dundee Bairns was established in 2017 by David Dorward, former Chief Executive of Dundee City Council, its main focus was tackling the “holiday hunger” faced by children living in areas of high multiple deprivation across the city.

Now, having grown and expanded with the help of volunteers and the local community, the charity offers a range of additional support, including clothing packs, free summer activities, cooking clubs, and more. Here, Genna Millar, Project Manager at Dundee Bairns, tells us more.

Food poverty has been a huge, prevailing issue for a long time now, particularly in Dundee, where one in three children are classed as living below the poverty line.

In 2017, when Dundee Bairns was established, we saw food larders pop up for the first time across our city, with many created by volunteers, organisations and charities to help plug the gap in the new benefits system roll-out, which saw lots of families sanctioned or waiting up to 12 weeks for any money to come through the door.

It was the first time I had seen such a harsh change in the system, and it led to many families and individuals having to make really stark choices about where to spend their money. And for households that were already financially challenged, when the school holidays came around, it meant some children were spending up to seven weeks struggling to access a decent meal or any kind of day out or activity.

Our Fun and Food programme was incepted to help already established community projects to access funding and food, enhancing their activities or helping them cater to more children and families in areas of high multiple deprivation. It is now a staple of the school holiday activity provision in Dundee, with community groups, schools, church groups, support workers and more all supported by Dundee Bairns.

We now work with more than 100 community projects and schools, and supply around 3,000 to 5,000 meals per week during the holidays. Activities we have supported over the years have included hiring a lifeguard so that children with additional support needs had access to swimming sessions to funding for arts and crafts and t-shirt making kits for community family fun days, and even paying for pony-axe hire to enable children in wheelchairs to take part in horse-riding.

The meals provided by the Fun and Food programme help to take the pressure off families, who are already struggling – and when children are well fed, sometimes the whole family is, too. It really does make a world of difference and, most importantly, it is dignified access to food and engaging activities.

Poverty of opportunity

Over the past seven years, we have seen a “slow burner” effect as standards have never improved for families and, in many cases, they have been worsened, first by COVID-19, and now by the cost of living crisis.

While prices have gone up massively across the board, benefits and wages don’t match the reality of daily living. The traditional image of an older person struggling to “heat or eat” is long gone, and people of all ages are now struggling to do either.

There is also the growing issue of poverty of opportunity for many young people, not just in Dundee but across the country. We live in a world that is being more and more monitised – and as resources become scarce due to lack of funding at government level, we are seeing more and more people generally being priced out of so many opportunities, which we all used to take for granted. We are very good at targeting support at the people we know are struggling but I see many more cases of in-work poverty, which is not being supported properly, and will become a massive issue if left unchecked.

Food poverty is a symptom of a poverty of everything else – if a family is struggling to put food on the table, it’s more than likely they won’t be able to support other basics. For example, I have worked with children who have never been to their local theatre, zoo, museum or beach, let alone been out of the city on holiday in the UK or abroad, which is shocking. How can you begin to dream bigger than your circumstances when your world is so narrow?

What’s more, school systems are struggling to cope with the level of welfare they need to tackle before they can begin teaching a child. Lack of resource in schools is a huge issue, and it’s frightening to see the cuts to resources in an area we know is already so stretched and doing so much with so little.

Two people wearing blue tshirts load boxes into an open car boot.
Dundee Bairns volunteers

Looking ahead

Dundee Bairns has grown so quickly in the last few years, and we have expanded our support with a wide range of programmes. Our new Bairns at Home project, for example, was started in September last year, and we have seen some absolutely mind-blowing results from it already – 60,000 items distributed to over 650 families with 6,000 children in just six months! While this project is very new, it has been a real game-changer for the third sector in Dundee, and we hope to deliver much more in the coming year. We also have funding to develop our Tea Club project, and we will shortly be employing a new member of staff to help us grow our food programmes from a nutritional point of view.

Although Dundee Bairns is working hard to support children and families across the city, it’s hard to think of our work as a “success” because the reasons we exist are not happy ones.

Food poverty for children could be tackled better by school food provision – at the moment, the provision is very limited, particularly for secondary school children. Many cost-cutting initiatives have been brought in to make meals at school fit a certain ideological criteria, and the result has been hungrier not healthier children.

Put simply, one school meal a day simply isn’t enough.

For more information on Dundee Bairns, visit

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