Wellbeing & Mental Health Matters: free school meals, and a personal perspective

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In our regular spot on the site where we chat about mental health and wellbeing, Jane has a few personal things to say about free school meals.

Hello and welcome to Wellbeing and Mental Health Matters. This week, we’re taking a very personal look at the impact of childhood poverty, and how a little bit of timely support can help rebuild a life.

Few of us will be unaware of the furore in the news recently regarding the provision of free school meals during the winter holiday season, and the light shone upon both the campaign and the issues behind it by the inspirational Marcus Rashford.

The debate struck a chord with me, particularly when reading some of the extreme views on those needing the free school meal provision, and the support of the welfare state in general. Because I was once one of those kids.

There’s a stigma that comes with free school meal provision. This was true back in the 1980s when I had them for a couple of years, and it remains true 30 years on. The implication that parents won’t provide, that they are lazy, are feckless, are squandering their dole money on drugs and alcohol is not new. It attaches itself to you like a stench, a grimy, mothballed trail of poverty.

Back when I got free school meals, you would walk into the dining hall where the monitors on their lofty perch would either take cash from the haves, or tick a green register for the have nots. There was no hiding your status, it was marked on you from the moment you walked through the door. Your plate of chips and grey meat lasagne was subsidised by the hard work of others. More than my one coat or fraying jumper, that tick in the register marked me as a state dependent.

But how did we get there? What circumstances lead a family to needing state support? The answer is often very little. Families are organic, they grow, they change, they split. They become diseased, unhealthy for a multitude of reasons, and sometimes it isn’t safe for them to stay together. Which was the case for my family.

My mother had to make an impossible choice. She left a horrendous situation knowing that she would lose both her job and her home (my parents ran and lived in a pub). She needed to find stability for two kids and a large dog. And – like we’ve seen this year with the provision of free food from multiple organisations and charitable support – our local community was a godsend in those first few months of sofa surfing and bewilderment.

I’m proud of my mother for having the courage to make the hardest choice. I’m not ashamed that once I benefitted from free school meals or social housing. I was blessed by both state and community support.

However, I will never forget that sense of dislocation from others during that time. Everything was fluid, there was no stability. Adults try to shield children from adversity around them, but when you don’t know where you will be laying your head that night, or how you will be able to afford to feed your children, it can be hard to create a sense of normality. And my mother – like Rashford’s – was a hero for getting us through what must have been the most difficult time of her life. All while stepping into graveyard shift, minimum wage jobs to try to build an income.

The community can only do so much. In order to create that stable life on which to heal and grow, we needed the support of the welfare state. And while it took a little while for the wheels to start turning, it did step in with both housing near my school, and free school meals.

I cannot understate the importance of this. The state gave us a foundation on which to repair our shattered lives. It allowed my mother to find stability without worrying about where we would be sleeping, and without pulling me from my supportive state school.

I remember moving into our new house with trepidation. A solid old terrace, with central heating that groaned through the walls, with boisterous, friendly neighbours. It was a haven. And yes, there was rent subsidy at certain points of hardship. This allowed us to live without the fear of red bills, of financial destitution, to give us time to build ourselves from nothing.

I have spent many years as a grants programme manager for several charitable trusts, and have walked many streets paved with deprivation. Within almost all of these are tightly knit local communities. Not all of these links are positive, but the vast majority of them are, offering what little they have to support others. In this time of austerity and pandemic, those communities have been sorely tested, with many people reduced to living on the edge. And that edge brings continual fear. I know this. I’ve lived it. And some of it has never gone away, printed on my soul like indelible ink.

Added to this are those people who are losing their jobs and are experiencing for the first time the shortcomings of the benefits system. Imagine their sleepless nights, their worry at taking care of their families, their gnawing concern at the future. People are being hollowed out, emotionally and economically, by the pandemic. They look to the state to provide support, to provide a safety net. To stop them from falling through the holes.

Free school meals may seem a welfare intervention too far to some people. I would ask them to step back and look at the bigger picture. Look at the generation of children who may be facing real fear about the future, and seeing it mirrored in the faces of their parents. Who have no control over what happens to them over the next few months, possibly years. Who may be additionally disadvantaged by home schooling and the lack of access to learning materials or safe, quiet spaces to study in.

Give them a life raft. Give them pride. Children on free school meals no longer have to stand in a line of public shame, waiting for a tick in a register. Meals are processed with electronic key cards, a huge step forward in curbing stigma. Us free school meals kids deserve a chance at a positive future. We want hope and aspiration. We don’t want additional shame or hunger to distract us from what is already a tough gig.

We grow into public servants, healthcare professionals, lawyers. We are your key workers. We gain our degrees, our diplomas, our skilled apprenticeships. We volunteer in your local community centres and grassroots sports clubs. We ARE you.

Taking care of the welfare of the poorest in society can only enrich it. Extending a hand to give a child a step up in a time of national crisis is a gesture we should all be willing to make, regardless of our political affiliation. It’s about more than being kind. But be that too.

I’m not unique, sadly. But I am who I am today because of the kindness of strangers. Thank you.

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