Poverty eats at society’s soul, says Saskia Murphy

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“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children,” Nelson Mandela said in a speech in South Africa in May 1995.

We can only wonder what the late Mandela would have thought now, almost 30 years on, following reports from headteachers in the UK – the sixth largest economy in the world – that schoolchildren are so hungry they are eating rubbers and hiding in the playground because they cannot affordto buy lunch.

The report, commissioned by Chefs in Schools, a healthy eating charity that trains chefs for school kitchens, reveals that many schools in England are already seeing a “heartbreaking” increase in hungry children, even before soaring household costs force more familiesto choose between heating and eatingthis winter.

One school in south-east London told the charity about a child who was “pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox” because they did not qualify for free school meals and did not want their friends to know there was no food at home – already acutely aware of the stigma that comes with poverty.

In interviews with the Observer, community aid groups said children were going into school having eaten nothing since their free school lunch the day before.

It’s difficult to imagine just what Mandela would have thought of our society’s soul. It’s a society in which those who live comfortably can at the very least afford a home, a car, trips out and a couple of holidays every year, and where those who are even better-offenjoy a lifestyle of luxury, but where children sit in classrooms with their stomachs rumbling.

Last week Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng unleashed economic turmoil on the country in their mini-budget, in which they pretty much ignored the cost of living crisis facing millions of households and instead awarded taxcuts to the literal 1 per cent – those earning £150,000 a year or more – at a cost of £45 billion.

It is terrifying to think about the difficulties that will face families in the coming months. Homeowners have been warned to brace themselves for a “significant” increase in interest rates, with financial markets signalling thatthe Bank of England might need to raise rates as high as 6 per cent in an attempt to get a grip on soaring inflation.

It’s clear that the matter of hungry children is not high on the list of priorities for the new prime minister’s government. But if it was, it would be a relatively simple problem to fix.

In England, all infant schoolchildren are entitled to free school meals from reception to year two. But beyondthat, only children whose parents earn less than £7,400 a year are eligible. Charities have called for the income threshold to be raised, and for all parents on Universal Credit to qualify – a position also takenby teachers’ unions.

When children are hungry, they cannot learn. The kids sitting in classrooms now with their stomachs rumbling should one day be our future doctors, teachers, and nurses – they will be the ones driving the economy in years to come.

Making sure children are at the very least fed is an investment in the future. But now we are risking a generation of adults who will be scarred by the trauma of poverty. And what kind of society will we be then?

Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy

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