Food banks are the only place some children eat a good meal in the holidays | Julie Coates | Voluntary Sector Network

When politicians talk about holiday hunger, they always make it seem like an abstract idea; a recent report, for instance, talked of up to 3 million children at risk of being “exposed to hunger”. But running a food bank, I’ve seen first-hand exactly what going hungry in the holidays is really like.

Tracy* tells me that every day is a struggle to get by. Each of her three children has learning difficulties and they need constant supervision. The food bank is a godsend for her – the children eat things they wouldn’t normally eat and get a good, nutritious meal in a safe space.

In the past year alone, as manager of the Hailsham food bank in East Sussex, I’ve coordinated the distribution of around 1,000 food parcels to local families in crisis. We give out more than a third of these to children, and this always increases during the summer holidays. New research from the Trussell Trust shows that across the UK last year, almost 4,500 more emergency food supplies were given to children in July and August than in the previous two months.

In the summer, we have to be more than just a food bank – we’ve set up a holiday club to provide breakfast and lunch to hungry families. Most of the children referred to us would have a free school meal during term time, and without it families really struggle. Some have a parent who is working, but can’t afford to pay for childcare and food. Even where children from struggling families are eating – often because their parents are going without – the nutritional quality of the food can be poor. There are people here who really have nowhere else to turn.

But it’s not just about hunger in the holidays. Children don’t just need food – they need something to do. Parents regularly tell me that our club is the only way they can take their children out and meet other families. Tracy can’t take her children out of the house at all without us, unless her husband (who works during the week) or their support worker comes along.

People often don’t realise that struggling to get by can be incredibly isolating. Families can’t afford to do any activities, go for days out or invite friends over, meaning children end up spending most of their holiday indoors. Our club provides fun activities, such as dance, arts and crafts, football and circus workshops, in addition to a nutritious hot meal. At the holiday club, Tracy’s children play really well and she feels she can relax a little and chat to other parents.

Running a holiday club isn’t easy – finding a venue was difficult, and there are always more families who need our help. We have an amazing team of volunteers, the Trussell Trust provided support to help us set up, and local businesses have been very generous, from donating healthy kebabs to organising “smoothie bikes” and puppet shows.

Seeing the impact of our work for struggling families is amazing, but it does make me wonder what they would do without us. The local children’s centre has faced cuts and there are few other places for families to turn when things are difficult.

Last year, one of the mums was touched by the flowers we put on the tables and said it was the first time they had ever gone out to eat as a family.

I hope that one day our “holiday shack” can be a place for families to come and have fun without needing a hot meal or extra help. Until that day comes, I and my team of volunteers will do our best to make sure nobody goes hungry just because their kids are on holiday.

*Name has been changed

Julie Coates is manager of Hailsham food bank. Find your local food bank here.

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