It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth on securing this important debate. My constituency is particularly blighted by food poverty. It has four food banks and there are a further six in the rest of the city. My office operates a makeshift food bank, where my staff regularly—in fact, daily—give out food parcels to constituents who have come about another issue such as universal credit, employment and support allowance or working tax credits. Once we start peeling away that onion, we find other issues under the skin, so we regularly give out food parcels.
In summer 2017, I was at a family fun day in my constituency to mark the start of the summer holidays. I received a call from a food bank, which told me that 36 families with children had turned up the day before, so the shelves were completely bare—there was nothing left. It was concerned that that would be a huge problem. I talked to some people, including media people who were at the event, and we put out an appeal, which resulted in a tremendous amount of food being donated to that food bank and others that were experiencing similar.
Reflecting on that, it became evident that the sudden demand for families to visit the food bank had to be due to something, which was obviously the fact that the schools were closed and the children who normally had free school meals could not get them. Families who live hand-to-mouth throughout the year, many of whom work but are on low incomes, become dependent on free school meals to provide their children with at least one hot meal a day.
I have spoken to countless teachers who have said that working families are struggling and that they can tell if the children are hungry. In my experience, I know the children are hungry. If someone has three school-aged children receiving free school meals, they will have to find 90 extra meals over the summer holidays. If the children have free breakfasts too, they will have to find another 90 meals. That is a lot of money and a lot of food to find for parents who are struggling.
For the last two years, my staff and I—they have been absolutely wonderful—have taken it upon ourselves to run our own summer lunch club. In the first year, I begged, stole and borrowed from anyone who cared to give. From bread and cheese to milk, yoghurt and bottles of water, we threw it together. We targeted children who were experiencing free activities, such as free swimming or free play schemes, or who were in community centres that were providing free children’s activities.
We would start at 7 o’clock in the morning, work through until about 9 o’clock, and then go and open the office. On the first day, I remember thinking that if we could feed 500 children in 10 days, we would have achieved something. By 10 o’clock that morning, after we had made the first delivery, I was getting phone calls from people saying, “Is that the sandwich lady?” I did not disillusion them, but said, “Yes, it is. How many do you want?”—I think I am still known as the sandwich lady.
In that first year, we served nearly 6,500 meals. They were primarily sandwiches, although with the resources we got from asking the food bank for food, we were able to provide a limited hot meal service at three centres. This summer, however, we provided 10,000 meals. We were able to convince the staff at Admiral and at Arvato, which is the shared services centre for the Department for Transport, to help.