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‘We have got nobody’ - Norwich families facing hunger amid free school meals decision

PUBLISHED: 07:30 31 October 2020 | UPDATED: 21:39 03 November 2020

Brian Green, at the Phoenix Centre, Norwich. This picture was taken pre Covid. Pic: EDP

Brian Green, at the Phoenix Centre, Norwich. This picture was taken pre Covid. Pic: EDP

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Jennifer Akanparum, her husband and her three children have eaten only ham sandwiches this week, because it is all they can afford.

The Phoenix Centre on Mile Cross Road. Picture: Denise BradleyThe Phoenix Centre on Mile Cross Road. Picture: Denise Bradley

The 24-year-old is one of dozens of people queuing for a family hamper of food at the Phoenix Centre in Mile Cross on Friday morning.

But, despite the 10-minute wait, she is grinning from ear to ear as it means she can “finally cook a proper meal”.

Jennifer Akanparum, 24, from Mile Cross in Norwich. Picture: Ruth LawesJennifer Akanparum, 24, from Mile Cross in Norwich. Picture: Ruth Lawes

Mrs Akanparum’s story is not unique. She is among the 14pc of families in the UK who have experienced food insecurity in the past six months, according to an online survey conducted by YouGov.

But this week their situation has been tougher, after the government decided not to extend free school meals over the October half-term, having done so over the Easter and summer breaks.

Rachel O'Leary, 42, with two of her children, from Bowthorpe. Picture: Ruth LawesRachel O'Leary, 42, with two of her children, from Bowthorpe. Picture: Ruth Lawes

The move has attracted widespread criticism, with England footballer Marcus Rashford’s petition to continue providing the meals reaching more than one million signatures.

The government has said it is supporting families through Universal Credit, and said £63m had been put aside to help with holiday hunger in June - despite guidance suggesting most of that funding would be spent within 12 weeks.

Niahl Hubbard, 21, has volunteered at the Phoenix Centre in Mile Cross for one and a half years. Picture: Ruth LawesNiahl Hubbard, 21, has volunteered at the Phoenix Centre in Mile Cross for one and a half years. Picture: Ruth Lawes

Mrs Akanparum said: “I feel let down by the government not giving free school meals. It was sad. We have relied on it for so long.

“I don’t know how we would’ve coped if we weren’t able to get food from the Phoenix Centre today. It would break our hearts.”

At the Phoenix Centre, a children’s project on Mile Cross Road, demand for food has surged over the half-term break with queues forming “round the block.”

Brian Green, from the Phoenix Centre, said: “This is solidarity in action not charity. But this is going to be the worst winter since the Second World War for hunger. We’re going to be thrown back to life in the 1950s.”

The team had prepared 140 lunches and by 12pm, when the service was officially opened, 60pc of the meals had already been taken.

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Waiting in the queue, a mother from Mile Cross with five children, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the government’s cut meant finding an extra five meals a day.

“And that’s pretty tough,” the 38-year-old said. “What have we got? We have got nobody. Except from places like The Phoenix Centre. Without them, there would be an increase in crime because people would have to steal just to survive. It would be diabolical.”

Volunteer Owen Willis said during the Easter holidays they gave away up to 100 lunches a day but on the first day of the October half-term, the Monday, which would usually be the quietest day, they provided 150 lunches.

Another mother, who did want to be named, with three children aged between five and one, said everyday was a struggle.

She was left upset by the government’s announcement to not provide free school meals.

She said: “I’m a self-employed cleaner and I just had to shut everything at the start of the pandemic. It has been a real struggle.”

Grant Bartram, 37, from Mile Cross, has five children and has had to cut down on food bills after recently losing his job.

He said a typical meal at the moment is beans on toast.

Mr Bartram added: “It’s an unprecedented time at the moment. I’m currently waiting for help as I lost my job and money is tight. It’s hard. Our budget has gone down.”

Rachel O’Leary has four dependent children and four older children and has travelled from Bowthorpe to The Phoenix Centre for the first time.

The 42-year-old said: “It has been helpful coming here and has made my life less stressful. Not having school meals this week has affected me.

“We would still be able to eat otherwise but it would be a struggle. I really don’t understand why the government isn’t giving us free school meals and I don’t understand the motives behind the decision.”

Niahl Hubbard, 21, who has been a volunteer at the Phoenix Centre for one and a half years, said: “I’m extremely disappointed but not surprised by the government’s decision to cut school meals.

“In lockdown we were doing 50 to 150 meals a week. Now it is steadily at 150 meals. But by Christmas, it will certainly be more than 200.”


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