In 2017, Burslem-based IT company Synectics Solutions took on a new challenge. It worked with local schools and community groups to feed disadvantaged children during the school holidays and provide fun, sociable activities. Without free school meals (FSMs), many children in Stoke-on-Trent go hungry and parents find themselves having to skip meals to feed them. No parent should have to go through this and yet research has shown that a third of parents in the UK have had to go hungry so their children could eat. The situation for households with incomes under £15,000 is even worse, with 73% of parents in this group reporting that they struggle to afford food during the holidays. Reports from schools were also shocking, as teachers realised that malnourished pupils were returning to class after the holidays.
In Stoke-on-Trent, these issues are a stark reality. According to the Department for Education, more than a fifth of children in the city are eligible for free school meals, making it one of the highest recipients of FSMs in the country. And this figure is just the tip of the iceberg. Many families sit only slightly above the threshold for eligibility and so still struggle to feed their children. Furthermore, the changing nature of the job market and the prevalence of zero hours contracts can provide added uncertainty when it comes to putting food on the table. It was clear that something needed to be done. Our first scheme was successful and across four schools and one community group, 154 children received three hours of free activities and a free lunch.
But we realised we’d only scratched the surface...
In 2018, the scale of the project grew considerably and so co-ordination was provided through the Port Vale Foundation Trust and Synectics Solutions. Additional funding also came from the Opportunity Area and a new relationship with Tesco Community Champions was developed to ensure that children could get the food they desperately needed. More schools and community groups joined and an increasing number of partners delivered activities all across the city. We felt that an identity for the work we were doing would be helpful for families and so “Ay Up Duck” (a traditional Stokie welcome) was born! We engaged with 1,604 children and 250 adults on a number of occasions; providing just shy of 6,000 meals.
The response from parents and children was overwhelming. Parents praised the initiative and its commitment to providing safe, fun activities and vital meals. One parent commented: “The actual safe space and activities are the reason we attend. I don’t let my children play outside on the street as it’s a dangerous area, so for us we can come and relax and my children can be outside and active”. Children were also highly enthusiastic about the scheme. One child said “Best school holidays ever. I had somewhere SAFE to go. I had lots of fun and made new friends. The food was ace as well. I would have just been in the house all holiday”.
Making a difference to children by enabling them to create happy childhood memories is humbling. For any child to thrive, they need not only proper nutritional meals but also fun activities and a chance to socialise with others. Every child in our city should have a positive story to respond to that perennial new school term question: “What did you do in your holidays?”.
We believe that a single co-ordinated and well communicated programme providing children with meals and activities irrespective of their circumstances is the least we, as a community, can provide. Disparate holiday activities simply do not access the families and children that are most in need of these services. An organisation needs to be created that will address this social crisis.