There is no better illustration of the rising levels of inequality and poverty in our country than the shocking increasing prevalence of food poverty in the UK.
There are now a staggering 2,000 food banks across the UK and in the last financial year the Trussell Trust distributed over 2.5 million emergency food parcels to people in crisis.
We should be clear eyed about who is to blame for this. When the Tories came to power, there were only 56 foodbanks in the UK, delivering 41,000 food parcels. A decade of Tory austerity has hit the poorest hardest, and the impact on Wales has been devastating.
Wales has the highest child poverty rates of any UK nation and the figure is even higher in my constituency of Cynon Valley, where 34.5% of children live in poverty.
I recently visited a number of local food providers which brought home to me the stark reality of food poverty here in my own community and the hardship so many people are suffering. Merthyr Cynon Foodbank alone distributed over 3,780 food parcels in 2020.
While these figures are startling, we must remember that behind them there are families and children going without.
The imminent end to furlough and to the £20 Universal Credit uplift presents us with the prospect of further extreme hardship for our poorest families. This will do little to help any ‘levelling up’ in our communities!
We should be angry. We are one of the richest nations in the world, how did we allow this situation to become normalised?
It must be challenged. And that is what I am determined to do – working with other politicians and organisations.
In Parliament, I am co-sponsor of an Early Day Motion that supports the national Right to Food initiative calling for UK government to enshrine the right to food into law. Had the UK Government adopted our recommendations this would have freed up significant resources for the Welsh Government through the Barnett Formula.
I am constantly advocating for fairer funding for Wales and for welfare reform at Westminster to try to help alleviate these issues.
While I will continue to push hard for change at a national level, it is to Wales and our Welsh Labour Government that I turn for hope. I welcome Mark Drakeford’s commitment to a bold, ambitious and radical approach and I fully support initiatives recently announced – around climate crisis, constitutional reform, and Universal Basic Income.
We in Wales can be at the forefront of the drive to eradicate food poverty as well and I know that this is a priority for Welsh Government.
Welsh Government is to be commended for its work to date to address food insecurity among school children, providing universal free breakfast in primary schools; millions of pounds of additional funding for the continued provision of free school meals (FSM) during the pandemic and free school meals during school holidays.
But despite these positive initiatives, over half of children in poverty in Wales are not eligible for Free School Meals – that’s 70,000 children. This represents a clear failure of the current eligibility criteria and further action is urgently required.
To make further significant inroads into ending child hunger, I believe that Welsh Government should extend Free School Meal (FSM) eligibility to all families receiving Universal Credit, as a first step towards implementing universal provision of nutritious FSM for all school-aged children in Wales.
This is achievable and affordable. A recent report into the costs and benefits of extending FSM, commissioned by the Wales Anti-Poverty Coalition, concluded that extending FSM to children of all households receiving Universal Credit would increase the total cost by a mere 0.06 per cent of Welsh Government’s revenue budget for 2020/21.
The benefits of universal free school meals are extensive and well documented: improved educational attainment, improved health and well-being, reduced stigma, reduced food insecurity, more working hours for predominantly low-paid school catering staff, boosting local economies.
Free School Meals won’t end child poverty on their own, but they will go some way towards supporting family incomes while also making school a more equal experience for pupils.
Yes, it will cost but sometimes the costs of not acting are far greater. The cost of inaction to the health of our children, to families who live in poverty and to the wellbeing of future generations cannot be tolerated.
The principle of universality has underpinned some of the Labour Party’s greatest achievements, from the NHS, to universal free prescriptions here in Wales. Free school meals should be added to this praiseworthy list.
Welsh Government is currently reviewing its FSM policy. I hope that it will continue in that radical tradition of great Welsh Labour figures such as Aneurin Bevan and Rhodri Morgan, upholding that socialist principle of universality to ensure that no child in Wales goes hungry. Turning that clear red water into clear red action. They will have my full support to do this.