Dianne Williams pauses for breath while attempting to mash her way through a seemingly endless number of potatoes.
Amid the laughter and giggling that can be heard from children playing together in the sunshine, Williams is making the final preparations to a lunch of fish fingers, mashed potatoes and baked beans.
For many of the children attending the Moat House Community Trust in the English city of Coventry, this will be their only hot meal of the day and Williams, the chief executive of the holiday camp program, is leaving nothing to chance.
“This isn’t a job, it’s a way of life,” she said. “It brings the community together. Many of the people who come here, some without kids, have nowhere else to go.”
The summer holidays are the highlight of the year for many children, but across Britain, millions of parents on benefits and low wages face stress and anxiety over whether they will be able to provide food for their families.
While the UK recorded its biggest budget surplus since 2000 last week, the measures of austerity that have cut through communities across the country have left parents fearing the worst during the six-week summer break from school.
Some 31% of children in Coventry live in poverty. Many of them rely on free school dinners throughout the year for their one hot meal a day.
When there’s no school, there are no free school meals. It’s a problem that has increased markedly in recent years and left families struggling, according to charity Feeding Britain.
“For some people it can be very difficult, especially for me with three picky eaters,” Elaine Packer, a single mother with three children, told CNN during a trip with her daughter to Moat House Community Trust.
“When you don’t have the free school meals then it can be really very expensive, so places like this can be a godsend.”
‘Holiday hunger’ on the rise in the UK
Three million children in the UK are at risk of hunger during summer vacation, according to the latest figures provided by the Feeding Britain charity, and food bank use is on the rise.
The Trussell Trust food bank network said it distributed more than 1.3 million three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis between April 2017 and March 2018, a 13% increase on the previous year. Nearly a third of those supplies went to children.
FareShare, a charity that redistributes food from outlets to community groups, said that the number of groups it supports has increased by 44% to 9,653 over the past year, and that the number of people accessing FareShare food each week rose by 59% to 772,390 during 2017-18.
A 2017 report by Unicef ranked the UK 34th for food security out of 41 high-income countries.
Unicef defines food insecurity as “lack of secure access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that can ensure normal growth and development, as well as an active and healthy lifestyle.”
Almost one in five children under the age of 15 in Britain suffers from food insecurity, placing it well above the 12.7% average for rich countries, according to Unicef. The UK scored worse on food insecurity than Greece or Italy.
The report also ranked the UK 16th out of 41 on tackling poverty, 15th on health and wellbeing, 31st on economic growth and 6th on reducing inequalities.
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Along with food banks, the crisis has led to a rise in holiday clubs, which are attempting to fill the void created by years of austerity.
In the Wood End neighborhood of Coventry, which was declared the eighth most deprived area in England in a 2015 government report, the summer camp runs three days a week for five weeks, offering free hot meals and activities for children.
“It’s hard for us as parents. I spend a lot of time during the holidays trying to work out what we can do and what we can afford,” Packer said. “Doing that seven days a week is really hard. So to have somewhere like this, where it’s all free and the kids get a hot meal, it’s just amazing.”
An army of volunteers led by the tireless Williams has helped the Moat House Community Trust become one of the country’s standout projects in tackling holiday hunger.
Williams is fiercely protective of her local community, helping anyone who comes through the door with no questions asked. Mothers, fathers, carers – all of them receive free meals at the center.
“You can tell the kids come in hungry because they keep asking me, ‘When’s lunch time?’” Williams said after finishing off mashing the potatoes. “You can see them jiggle around so we give them some fruit to keep them going. But we’re used to it now. We shouldn’t be, but we are.”
‘People don’t like food banks’
Nearly 600 organizations ran holiday clubs similar to the one at the Moat House Community Trust in 2017, providing more than 187,000 meals to roughly 22,000 school-aged children, according to a study by Northumbria University.
The rise in the number of these clubs was not surprising to Williams, who said she believed some people were reluctant to visit food banks.
“People don’t like food banks. They feel they’re being judged,” she said. “This sort of program is open to everyone and there’s no judgment. Nobody knows who can or can’t afford a hot meal. The whole family can come, take part in the activities and then have a hot dinner. There’s nobody asking any questions.”
A grant from Feeding Britain, which supports a number of holiday clubs across the country, has been integral to the success of the program in Wood End.
Feeding Britain is the brainchild of Labour Party lawmakers Emma Lewell-Buck and Frank Field. The charity expects to feed 27,000 children in 79 clubs across England this summer.
The pair helped secure a £2 million ($2.6 million) grant from the government for the charity this summer. Field, the member of Parliament for Birkenhead, near Liverpool, said he expects that number to rise to £10 million next year.
Field wants the government to address the issue of holiday hunger not just to keep kids from going hungry, but also to prevent children from regressing educationally during the summer.
According to research carried out by Feeding Britain, children in poorer areas of the country saw their spelling skills decline or stagnate over the summer holidays, often leaving them needing weeks to make up for the learning loss.
“What we’re most interested in is ensuring that children do not lose progress during the holidays,” Field told CNN. “When the government does bring forward a bill on this subject, we want to combine food with fun to make sure they don’t experience this slump. Fun can develop children’s cognitive skills.”
Back in Coventry, fun is definitely on the menu, as children play in the outside gazebo before lining up for lunch.
There’s also food left over for those who need it – Williams is always on hand to make sure that nobody leaves fearing an empty fridge.
“People come here and we send them home with food,” she said. “It means the world to them.”
“One woman told me told me she wouldn’t still be with us if it wasn’t for the charity giving her somewhere to come and feel safe and at home. That’s the reality of the situation.”