“What can we do?”: using poetry to fight food poverty

Young Poets Network has teamed up with End Hunger UK to challenge writers aged 11-25 in the UK to respond to the crisis of food poverty. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by statistics, so we’ve asked poet and Teacher Trailblazer Fran Pridham about UK hunger and how poetry can make a difference.

Frost on a window
Photo credit: Don Searls / flickr

Winter. The alarm went a while back but you’re still curled in a ball, holding your duvet close. It’s cold. You don’t want to get up. You’re hungry. Mum left early. At least school will be warm and there will be something to eat for lunch.

Ask any teacher working in an area of deprivation today and they will confirm that this story is neither exaggerated nor particularly unusual. Child poverty today is a reality that many schools deal with on a daily basis. Head teachers are increasingly reporting the desperate need faced by schools to provide resources such as food and uniforms in order to combat some of the difficulties created by poverty. These difficulties hinder students’ ability to concentrate, to think and to learn, and leave them malnourished, dispirited and tired.

Schools report their pupils show obvious signs of long-term malnourishment: ‘they are thinner’, smaller, have grey skin, poor teeth and poor hair.  Despite schools’ primary goal being to provide education, therefore, in a humanitarian attempt to give their students any chance at life, schools are washing school uniforms for poor households, providing debt counselling for parents and designing schemes to provide families with shoes and clothes.

Above all, however, schools worry about the nagging and pervasive hunger their students feel. Monday mornings have been found to be the worst day for many children who have struggled with little food over the weekend. Breakfast clubs and free school meals are in many cases a child’s only guaranteed hot meal of the day. One head teacher in Portsmouth kept his school open on a snow day because he worried that otherwise, despite the freezing conditions, many of his pupils wouldn’t have a hot meal that day. He was right. 45% of his students turned up that day to be fed. A new term ‘holiday hunger’ has been coined to reflect many pupils’ hunger during weekends and holidays where they don’t have access to free school meals. North Lanarkshire council has been so concerned it is in fact discussing how to extend free school meals throughout the year so food can be delivered from leisure facilities and community centres when schools are closed. Schools today frequently provide food banks with parcels of food for families in need.

Bowl of cereal and milk

In recognition of the problem, the government has allocated £26m for investment in breakfast clubs. But free school meals are not a long-term solution to the problem of food poverty, and despite the government’s acknowledgement the criteria for obtaining school meals has been tightened further; and from 2022 there will be an income threshold for universal credit, ‘so that there are children currently entitled to free school meals who will not be getting them.’ By 2021, despite all current efforts to deal with the problem, there will be an extra 1.5m children in poverty.

Statistics used by the campaign to End Hunger are distressing to read.  In this country 21% of adults are marginally to severely food insecure. 1.2 million three-day emergency food parcels were handed out by just one charity in 2016. 1 in 4 parents with children aged 18 and under were skipping meals because of lack of money. One charity provides over 31,000 breakfasts to malnourished and vulnerable children every year. The statistics reveal the terrible truth that that our country is the second most food insecure country in Europe (only behind Albania). The cold logic of the figures only emphasises the horror of the human struggle they record: the humiliation of asking a school teacher for sanitary towels when there are none at home; the cold evenings spent when a parent has had to make the choice between heating or food; the constant nagging ache of an empty stomach.

1 in 6 adults have skipped a meal as they cannot afford it. 1 in 7 worry about not having enough food to eat. 1 in 12 have gone a whole day without eating.

And what can we do? As writers how can poetry make a difference or provide a weapon in the fight for social justice? Well, poets today are not sitting on the side-lines simply observing with poetic detachment what is, but instead are seeking to use poetry as a stimulus to change British society. New voices have exploded in anthologies created after the #MeToo campaign and the Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017. Poets from all walks of life, who in many cases have experienced food poverty and all the difficulties caused by it, are demanding to be heard and counted.

First, the voices of those facing the daily challenge of food insecurity need to find their way to the ears of those in a position to make changes. In an ideal world, the onus would be on those in positions of privilege to inform themselves and make change. But in the world we live in, the most vulnerable people have to make themselves heard to enact change.

So if you feel safe and comfortable to do so, bring your own experiences into your poetry. Speak out so that others are moved to act, so that they can no longer ignore your experiences, or the urgent need for change. Make them understand how you feel in a way that only poetry can: not by telling, but showing. As Andrew McMillan said in a recent interview with Young Poets Network, ‘all great literature, on some level, needs to … bear witness.’ Students whose access to education is challenged by poverty need to be represented and politicians need to feel beyond the figures they work with. Our poetry needs to challenge the assumptions of a society that seems too ready to think child food poverty is somehow acceptable, especially within the world’s sixth largest economy. Poetry can therefore provide a vision for the future, a world that should be. It can provide the inspiration for change.

When it’s dark outside and you feel the cold and struggle of those daily facing the difficulties of hunger, turn to your writing and the power you have to effect change. Stand to be counted. Break the silence. Add your voice to all those protesting the UK’s unacceptable problem of food poverty. Get writing!

Young Poets Network’s challenge with End Hunger UK is now closed, but you can still read the challenge page and get inspired to respond to the food poverty crisis in the UK. Fran has also written a free teaching resource to help educators enter the challenge and win a free poet visit. Read more about the food poverty crisis on our challenge page.

Fran Pridham is a teacher, writer and performer based in Wigan. She has run a writers’ group at Winstanley College for 22 years, and has taught winning poets in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, from its inception in 1998 until today. As a Teacher Trailblazer Fran has produced teaching resources for The Poetry Society, available online. For many years Fran was a member of Manchester Poets and as a winner in the Crocus Books competition had her first poetry pamphlet Red Jam published in 2000. Her textbook The Language of Conversation came out in 2001 and her interest in chatting has never ceased. She has facilitated a poetry trail at the Manchester Poetry Festival, and continues to be published in poetry magazines. Apart from poetry, her principal interest is eating and making sure everyone around her is having fun!

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