Holiday hunger, and how it might be fixed

5 Jan 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 8 Jan 2018

Portadown Gets Active
Portadown Gets Active

With most people feeling well stuffed after Christmas, it is a good time to look at those less fortunate, and how many children in NI rely on healthy lunches they get at school that then disappear over the holidays.

Christmas is over and many of us might be feeling overindulged.

The pursuit of a healthier lifestyle is a mainstay of new year resolutions, and often given great emphasis because of the luxurious few weeks we enjoy between mid December and early January.

Not everyone is so lucky.

Children from poorer families in Northern Ireland can fall behind their peers over holiday periods – during summer, in particular, due to the length of the break, but also Christmas and Easter.

The bare fact is that many children rely on the healthy meals they get in school to provide adequate nutrition – meals that stop outside of term time.

Obviously good nutrition is vital for the development of children and young people. Those who do not receive it are at a disadvantage, and one which should be avoidable.

Moreover, this issue of learning loss goes beyond the food that is or is not on the table. Those from poorer backgrounds are less likely to get access to social and educational activities in their time off, which compounds the problem.

Children in Northern Ireland (CiNI) is running a campaign to end holiday hunger and the organisation is making gains. However, as Ellen Finlay, Policy Officer at CiNI, told Scope, this is a tricky issue to tackle. Even the scale of the problem is not that clear.

“It’s hard to put a figure on it and no-one really wants to talk about it.”

She said the Family Fund, an organisation which looks after families who have children with disabilities, particularly those who are vulnerable or on low incomes, has carried out a survey which backed up worries about nutrition and social contact. There has also been some good work carried out to identify the wider context.

What we know

Last year The Detail wrote an excellent article drawing together the information that is available about the extent of holiday hunger in Northern Ireland.

Every day in school more than 100,000 children are entitled to a lunch funded by the Department of Education – more than one in four of all pupils. The percentage of these pupils who do not see this adequately replaced during holidays is unknown. However, per The Detail (figures correct as of June 2017):

  • The Trussell Trust confirmed a 17% increase in NI children using foodbanks during July and August compared to May and June.
  • The postcode area with the highest percentage of free school meal entitlement is BT12 - the Sandy Row and Village area of Belfast – where around 75% of children (nearly 4,000) lose access to a free meal when schools close.
  • 198 children of asylum seeking families will miss out on a free daily meal during the summer holidays.
  • 196 schools in the most disadvantaged areas offer breakfast provision meaning some young people may be missing out on two meals during summer.
  • 1,799 two and three year olds who attend nursery full-time are entitled to free school meals.

CiNI’s End Holiday Hunger campaign is trying to tackle this nutritional gap and the associated issues.

However, despite not having a huge amount of money – and the collapse of Stormont making everything that bit more tricky – it is not simply about raising awareness. The organisation is trying to develop and ultimately roll out practical measures.

In August 2016 they held a two-week pilot programme in Kilkeel, for young people aged from 12 to 16. Then throughout 2017 they ran a more advanced scheme in Portadown which they are hoping will provide the basis for a model that can be rolled out across NI.

CiNI is part of the Children and Young People’s Strategic Partnership (CYPSP) and the issue of holiday hunger is now with a CYPSP Task and Finish Group to “develop a multiagency model for responding to Holiday Hunger”. The ultimate aim is a response across Northern Ireland. But what should this look like?


Throughout 2017 CiNI ran a holiday hunger initiative in Portadown which they view as a great success.

The scheme brought together a number of different organisations and agencies across the statutory, private and third sectors. It also focused on far more than just giving children from poorer backgrounds a good meal. Skills and social development are at the forefront of CiNI’s thinking.

Ms Finlay told Scope: “We thought long and hard about this. There are a lot of holiday hunger projects in England, Scotland and Wales and we looked at those but feeding children was not our sole aim. We didn’t want that to be the main thing, or to stigmatise those involved, and we wanted to provide an education.

“When my kids are off and I take some time off I might take them to the zoo or a museum. We do things on a regular basis. However, some children do not get those opportunities during summer. This increases any learning loss beyond what occurs when they miss out on meals. When those children go back to school they are almost starting off a number of months behind some of their peers.

“In Portadown, we wanted to provide good food but also to offer an education during that period, including OCN [Open College Network] accreditation.

“We had two different age ranges: those aged eight to around 14 who did an OCN in healthy living, and those who were over 14 who did an OCN in peer mentoring. We did the peer mentoring first and then those young people were involved in the delivery of healthy living. Some of them have since used this on university applications or to get more work experience.”

Children and young people involved with the scheme also hap opportunity to do a course called Mini Medics, where they learned first aid such as CPR, and also some health and safety.

CiNI started out with some support from the Public Health Agency (PHA) – who wanted to see the children be active as well as get healthy food - but also needed third-sector partners in Portadown, and backing from local businesses.

Local youth group Oasis was their community anchor, and businesses Almac and Brakes UK provided private-sector support.

“Our biggest venture was during summer, but there was also a project at Halloween, and a couple of days over Christmas. The summer initiative was most of August, three days each week. Our project in Kilkeel the previous year was three weeks, five days a week, and we found that was just too much for the kids and too much for the staff. Three days per week seemed to work really well.”

Rolling out

According to Ms Finlay, cross-sectoral input was necessary for the scheme to succeed, and she feels it will be crucial if this is to be replicated effectively across NI.

“We got as many people on board as we possibly could. We make sure we that, whenever we go into an area, there is a community anchor, an organisation that knows the children and knows the families. The PHA is also involved, and we also get referrals from the Family Support Hubs [which are themselves cross sectoral].

“We got a small pot of money from the Public Health Agency but the rest of the money came from private enterprise.

“We can’t wait for government so we need to engage with private businesses. If we sat back and waited for funding we would still be waiting. When we decided to do this project we hadn’t a penny, so had to think outside the box and look for something sustainable. That means doing something different with the money you already have, but also doing something different by looking for alternative partners.

“We were very conscious that when we approached Almac that they are a business based in Portadown. Obviously they have CSR concerns, but also that the young people benefitting from this could be their future workforce.”

The University of Northumbria is currently carrying out research into the effects of holiday hunger and learning loss. This has yet to be finalised but preliminary findings indicate this is a significant issue that therefore cannot be ignored.

CiNI is pushing forward to find solutions.

“We are hoping for two things. One is for organisations that already run summer schemes to be able to take this toolkit and upgrade their scheme to holiday hunger provision. They are already spending money on various aspects necessary for an initiative, and it wouldn’t cost that much more to provide food and education.

“I think it’s so important to talk about the fact that this not just the responsibility of government. We all have a responsibility and, given the current political situation, CiNI could not stand back and do nothing. If business is willing to help and they get something from it I don’t see why we should not push on with that.

"The CYPSP Task and Finish group is our next main focus. It was set up to make sure the model we have is the most efficient one and then look into how we can roll it out to the rest of Northern Ireland.”

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