A few years ago, when I was running widening participation at a university, my budget was unexpectedly reduced in the first term of the academic year.
I had to find significant savings but had already enrolled lots of pupils onto the programmes we ran.
Determined to deliver our promise to those young people, I found budget savings elsewhere including a reduction in the catering provision at events.
A few months later a teacher quietly approached me at an event. He politely pointed out that the calorie provision at lunch time was much lower than what his pupils, majority Pupil Premium and Free School Meals entitled, received for lunch at their school. He was worried their main, or only meal of the day, was too meagre.
I was suitably embarrassed. In my desire to keep running the programmes for these children, I’d forgotten that no one can learn properly when they’re hungry. I ordered a mass bulk of snack items to bolster subsequent visits and took the issue to my senior colleagues at the university. We re-introduced the hot meal provision for campus visits immediately and budget was found to make that possible.
Lunch provision on campus visits from widening participation schools is critical. In order to visit your university, schools and pupils may have travelled long distances, often setting off early in the morning before free school meal provisions can be collected.
Asking parents and carers to find the money for a packed lunch or sending children with money to buy food on campus during a cost-of-living crisis is not the answer. Ten per cent of children in the UK live in households experiencing severe food insecurity, meaning that their access to food is compromised to the extent that they are skipping meals and going hungry. We know the pandemic exacerbated food insecurity with 2.3 million children living in households where skipping meals, insufficient portions, and going entire days without food is commonplace.
These numbers will only be rising as more families experience poverty and financial hardship this winter.
Catering for everyone
It can be easy when staring at a spreadsheet and a challenging budget environment to cut the catering budget. But to the children coming onto campus, it can mean forfeiting their only meal of the day. In this economic climate it’s more important than ever before that we collectively resist that – just as schools are resisting it too.
I doubt any president or vice chancellor – or indeed anyone in a university – wants children going hungry on their campus. Maya Angelou famously said:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel
The very last feeling we want for low-income children visiting our campuses is hunger. Or anxiety about getting enough to eat whilst being encouraged to explore their futures. It’s an impossible task anyway, to think and concentrate when you are hungry. Rebekka Jackson, a Mum in our Knowsley Parent Power group put it clearly:
as adults, if we skip a meal then our brains can’t function on our work. So, if our children, either in school or university, don’t eat, they won’t be able to concentrate on their studies
Feeding kids matters
I know universities are facing difficult financial times due to inflation and heating costs – as are all institutions including schools and charities. I know many of you will have the same challenge I did a few years ago – cut your budget and do it quickly. I ask everyone facing this challenge to please maintain your catering provision and make feeding free school meal children a priority budget line.
As universities cut lunch provision for pupils on campus visits, my charity is currently talking to food poverty organisations, food banks and schools about how to plug the gap and make sure children are fed on campus. This cannot be how the university sector wants those serving the most-disadvantaged to be spending their resources and energy.
But we will if we need to – because feeding kids matters. Now is the moment for the university sector to commit to ensuring no child goes hungry on campus this academic year.