By Richard Fleury
With additional reporting by Nancy Brand
It is worth remembering, as we sit down to watch A Christmas Carol or Oliver! with a bellyful of mince pies and festive booze, that our town is home to some of most deprived children in the country.
One of the most repugnant lies told by Boris Johnson during his groundbreakingly deceitful election campaign is that child poverty has gone down. Johnson's lie echoes the attitudes of the Victorian era, when well-fed politicians waved away responsibility for the suffering of millions.
Child poverty is in fact rising, with projections by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and others predicting record high levels within a few years.
Since 2010, when the Conservative and Lib Dem Coalition embarked on its austerity project, 400,000 more children in households with children under five are in poverty, according to Save the Children. Almost three quarters of the increase in overall child poverty since 2010 has been among families with the youngest children.
Now 4.1 million British children live in poverty in the UK. Seven in ten of these are in working families. Meanwhile 700,000 are growing up in severe poverty. Here, in the world's fifth richest country.
“We know what causes child poverty and we know how to end it,” says Anna Feuchtwang of End Child Poverty. “We know that the income of less well-off families has been hit by severe real-terms cuts in benefits and by higher housing costs. And we know that work does not guarantee a route out of poverty.”
Here in the Faversham and Mid Kent parliamentary constituency, 4,455 children – 26.1 percent or around one in four – live in poverty. That's lower than the national average, although not a statistic to be proud of.
But a short walk out of our charming town centre, with its artisan food stalls and cosy coffee shops, is Davington Priory: one of the ten most deprived council wards in England, according to the 2017 deprivation index.
Here, 38 percent of children – way above the national average – are growing up in poverty.
According to DWP statistics, that's 240 children in Davington Priory. In Abbey ward, the number is 268, in Watling it's 293 and in St Ann’s it’s 232.
Faversham Foodbank, based at the Gospel Mission Church in Tanners Street, opened in 2014. Since April this year, it has provided a total of 7,956 meals to 378 children and 506 adults.
“You'd be surprised how many people from Faversham we do see,” says project manager Juliet Cowgill. “You go into town and think what a smart little place, but there's a lot going unseen.”
This national scandal is fast becoming the new normal, as it was in Charles Dickens' day. According to UNICEF data, ten percent of UK children live in severe food poverty. The European average is four percent.
Hunger and malnutrition are on the rise. Before 2010, teachers rarely felt they needed to pay out from their own pockets to feed pupils struggling to concentrate because of hunger pains. And most children looked forward to school holidays. Now, for an large and ever-increasing number, the end of term means an empty stomach.
For around 39 weeks of the year, 14 percent of children from low income families across England are entitled to free school lunches. Their parents dread the holidays. Losing those meals means finding another £30-40 per week or skipping meals so their kids can eat.
More than three million children are at risk of going hungry when the term ends. The problem is now so widespread, there's even a snappy phrase for it – 'holiday hunger' – a term that didn't exist a decade ago. A recent All Party Parliamentary Group report on hunger showed children most at risk of holiday hunger may also suffer from social isolation, loneliness, and inactivity.
The use of food banks (another term nobody heard ten years ago) is also at a record high. Britain now has more food banks than McDonald's branches. Today there are over 2,000 nationally, with around 1,200 operated by charity The Trussell Trust and more than 800 independently run.
A recent study revealed foodbank users live on an average of £7.10 per day (£50 a week) after housing costs – far below the £262 per week official relative poverty threshold.
For many families, the switch to Universal Credit – the controversial benefits system the Government has been rolling out since 2013 – is devastating. The five-week wait for the first payment can leave parents and children with literally nothing to live on. Without food banks, many would simply starve.
The Trussell Trust revealed the majority (65 percent) of referrals it received between April and September this year were due to Universal Credit payment delays. Its food banks were four times busier in areas where the new credit had been in place for 12 months or more.
“I've had people come to me and say 'I'm terrified about being swapped over to Universal Credit',” says Jenny Reeves, Faversham's Labour candidate in the general election. “People shouldn't be living in fear.” Jenny lives on a low income herself and she and her family know only too well what life in our town is like under austerity. “I live on the poverty line. That's me. I've never made a secret of it and I'm not going to,” she says.
Even as it pulls away our country's welfare safety net, the Government remains staunchly in denial about the impact of its policies. Jacob Rees Mogg famously described food banks as 'rather uplifting' and Michael Gove said those in poverty have “only got themselves to blame for making bad decisions”.
If so, Britain is experiencing a colossal national epidemic of bad decision-making. An estimated 14 million UK citizens now live in poverty. And the situation is getting worse, fast.
The Trussell Trust issued 823,145 emergency food parcels between April and September, with more than a third going to children. It was the charity's busiest six months ever. Demand was 23 percent higher than in 2018: the sharpest rise for five years.
Yet just a month ago, Home Secretary Priti Patel stood in a Trussell food bank and flatly denied the government was responsible.
“Well it’s not the Government though, is it?” she insisted, suggesting instead that millions sliding into Dickensian destitution during a decade of brutal public spending cuts was simply a remarkable coincidence.
“Everybody just says it’s the Government as if it’s this sort of like bland blob that you know, you can just go and blame. Well, it’s not. Because it’s all parts of society and the structures. Local authorities have a role to play, education and public services, which are locally led and locally run.”
Perhaps Patel's 'nothing to do with us' response is correct. Perhaps Conservative policies such as austerity, dropping legally binding targets to reduce child poverty, £16 billion of local authority cuts, Universal Credit, the two-child benefit limit and the benefits freeze have absolutely no connection with millions relying on charity to eat. Perhaps poverty is, as Patel claims, a local problem for local people, caused locally, by local authorities. And by some massive coincidence it just happens to be occuring locally the length and breadth of the country, including here in Faversham.
To find out why we have hungry children in our town, the Eye emailed Swale councillor David Simmons. A Faversham Foodbank trustee for many years before standing down last month, a longstanding local Conservative councillor and former mayor, coun Simmons should be the ideal person to explain what, if not national Government policy, has led to Faversham families relying on charity to eat. He didn't respond.
Instead, we talked to Faversham Foodbank's project manager Juliet Cowgill. “Everything you hear about on the news is what we see,” she said. “Depression, family break-up, health problems, a lot of mental health problems and people being sanctioned (having their benefit payments stopped by the DWP). Everybody's story is slightly different.”
For some, the foodbank is literally a life-saver. “People sometimes come back and tell us how helpful we are in their time of desperation,” said Juliet. “We were doing a collection recently and a couple of people came up and said: 'You saved our lives!'” We are very grateful for the enormous amount of support that the town gives us. It is wonderful.”
Like food banks, children's lunch clubs are on the rise. Across the UK, charity schemes provide meals and activities for kids at risk of holiday hunger. Meals and More, which run breakfast clubs for 12,000 children, reports a 20 percent increase in demand this year. The charity says up to four million children are at risk from holiday hunger, with 53 percent under five years old.
Earlier this year, the Faversham branch of a supermarket chain supported a local initiative, MakeLunch:Faversham. MakeLunch is part of Bradford-based Transforming Lives for Good, a Christian charity whose network of 100 partner churches across the UK has served more than 100,000 “free, hot and healthy meals to children and families who would otherwise go hungry”.
“In addition,” says MakeLunch, churches can “build relationships with families in desperate need of the loving support of your compassionate church family”.
To learn more about the scheme, we contacted TLG. A few days later, we received an email from a man called Mike Taylor who runs MakeLunch:Faversham. “I'm not interested in giving ammunition for one of your anti-Tory rants,” he said, out of the blue (as it were). But after his unorthodox introduction, Mike did later provide information about the project.
MakeLunch: Faversham ran 14 sessions over the summer holidays at Gatefield Hall and the Alexander Centre, serving a total of 283 meals to 73 different children and 56 meals to the adults who brought them. A team of 24 volunteers run the kitchen and craft activities. Families are referred by Faversham Foodbank, local primary schools, the Citizens' Advice Bureau, social media and word of mouth.
“The children get involved in making their own lunch and it is a service provided to any child, not only those at risk of holiday hunger,” says Mike. “We do not set any criteria which families have to meet to come to Make Lunch. Research and anecdotal comments show that this is important to reduce stigma stopping families coming.”
Between 60 and 70 percent of children who come MakeLunch:Faversham qualify for free school meals. But only about a third families under 'food pressure' are actually entitled to free meals. Shockingly, families with self-employed earners – increasingly common in today's 'gig economy' – don't get them, however low their income.
An elder of the Faversham Community Church, Mike Taylor has worked hard to help local people suffering under austerity. More than most, he must know what misery its policies cause in our community.
So why the politically-charged email? Mike's Twitter feed provides a few clues. In among the ecumenical matters are retweets criticising abortion rights, LGBT militants, Extinction Rebellion, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour antisemitism (Conservative antisemitism or Islamophobia, not so much) and promoting Nigel Farage's Brexit Party. He recently retweeted a bizarre claim by a clergyman called Marcus Walker from St Bart's church in London's Smithfield that the “Myth of Squalid Victorian England” is “substantially untrue”.
There it is again: that troubling disconnect. In London's Victorian slums, more than half of babies died before the age of one. Smithfield, with its meat market, was one of the capital's worst. Charles Dickens described it as “asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam”.
A man ahead of his time, Dickens dedicated much of his life's work to exposing the cruel realities of poverty. His conviction that poverty was the fault of the establishment informed some of the writer's best-loved anti-government rants. Dickens was a journalist and joining inconvenient dots is what good journalists do.
There's a lot we can all do to help local families at the sharp end of austerity: Support schemes such MakeLunch which need generous donations, volunteers and free or cheap venues. Mike and his team aren't running it over Christmas but will start up again for the February 2020 school half-term holiday. Why not lend them a hand? Or give to Faversham Food Bank and independents such as the Family Food Bank.
As Dickens wrote: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
But there is one very simple way you personally can help end child poverty and hunger: Don't vote for it in the first place. Poverty was then and is now, a political issue. Why leave compassion at the polling station door?
If you would like to help the Trussell Trust's Faversham Foodbank at Christmas, please donate non-perishable food items at the Gospel Mission Church, Tanners Street on Wednesdays and Fridays from 1.30pm to 4pm.
Or bring your donation when you come to pick up the Faversham Eye Christmas Special in the market place on Saturday 21 December and we will deliver it to the food bank for you.
What should you donate? Faversham Foodbank's Juliet Cowgill suggests “things like tinned ham, tinned salmon, anything that's a bit of a treat. But not pasta – we're drowning in pasta!”
If you would like to volunteer, donate or help provide premises, please contact MakeLunch: Faversham.
The Family Foodbank
A Kent-wide independent foodbank based in Ashford