Tens of thousands of children across our county are at risk of going hungry every time they are on holiday from school.
Food banks and national charities have warned that families who are entitled to free school meals during term-time are struggling to put food in the mouths of children during the school breaks, when the meals are not available.
The issue has been highlighted on television by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, and holiday hunger is now on the lips of MPs after a bill proposing free meals are provided for youngsters during the school holidays was formally introduced in parliament last month.
“This is a major issue, locally in West Yorkshire, nationally and even globally,” said Calderdale school chef Tony Mulgrew.
“It’s absolutely frightening and appalling that in 2017 children are going hungry.”
Paula Sherriff, MP for Dewsbury and Mirfield, said the 12,731 children eligible for and claiming free school meals in Kirklees were among those worst affected.
She said: “It is unacceptable that so many children are at risk of going hungry in our community.
“Child poverty is at a seven year high, and wages are falling, leaving working families worse off.
“Every child deserves to be well fed every day.”
Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin said she recalls speaking to a schoolteacher before the summer holidays “who knew there were kids in her class that would not be eating properly”.
Ms Brabin said: “The rise in holiday hunger is shameful.
“In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, children suffering from hunger shouldn’t be accepted in 2017.”
The issue was also raised at a full meeting of Wakefield Council earlier this month.
Portfolio holder for children and young people Coun Olivia Rowley said 23 per cent of children in the district were in poverty.
Councillor Maureen Cummings, chair of the area’s food aid network, said: “It is a known fact that children who are on free school meals possibly don’t get a meal when it is the holidays.”
And Airedale and Ferry Fryston councillor Les Shaw, added: “This is 2017 and the fourth richest country in the world and yet we can’t feed children in our own areas.”
Councillors praised the good work of food banks and individual organisations, including the Old Quarry Adventure Playground in Knottingley, the Airedale ‘food for children’ initiative and the kids kitchen scheme at Havercroft and Ryhill Community Learning Centre, which ran free lunch schemes for children over the summer break.
But whilst schools, food banks, churches, and other agencies are working to address holiday hunger in their areas, there are calls for more to be done on a national level.
Mr Mulgrew, a catering manager at Ravenscliffe School in Halifax since 2012, believes funding should be allocated to allow schools to open and offer free school meals during the holiday periods.
He said: “You have got a resource that is lying empty for approximately 15 weeks of the year.
“If it was a properly funded, there is no reason why a school kitchen couldn’t be productive across those weeks.”
In Wales, a total of £500,000 of the Welsh government’s education budget was put towards providing free school meals for primary-age children during this year’s summer break.
The new proposed School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill, put forward by Labour MP Frank Field, could see the UK government also put measures in place to try and tackle holiday hunger, if approved.
The bill, due to be debated in the House of Commons in January, would “require local authorities to facilitate the delivery of programmes that provide free meals and activities for children during school holidays”.