Cardinal Vincent Nichols has joined 20 faith leaders in writing to the Prime Minister to call for action tackling child poverty in England. Together they write ‘it is all our duty to come together to protect the most vulnerable in our society, especially in times of crisis.’ As we head into our second national lockdown this duty is more pertinent than ever.
Since the first lockdown in March, Caritas Westminster has witnessed an incredible response from the Catholic community to shocking increases in food poverty and insecurity. We have seen schools becoming foodbanks, priests becoming food delivery drivers, and thousands of volunteers giving up their time to provide emergency help. Across the diocese the need continues to grow. The foodbank at St Mary’s Parish in Finchley East has reported a 400% increase in users since March, whilst in Hertfordshire, Borehamwood Foodbank had given out more food parcels by August 2020 than they had in the whole of 2019.
Food relief projects are also reporting a change in who is in need with many ‘newly poor’ coming forward. Many projects which served individuals and those who are homeless or living in hostels, before the pandemic have seen an increase in families asking for support. Speaking about food projects in North Hertfordshire Caritas Westminster’s Development Worker, Liz Wills told us ‘we have seen a lot more middle class people asking for help, as many have lost work and now do not have enough to feed their families. Many people, who have never needed help before, are now requesting emergency food parcels.’ At the same time projects have told us that homelessness is becoming more ingrained and the need is not going away any time soon. St Patrick’s Open House project in Soho Square told us they are seeing more long term homelessness and increasing mental health problems. Many they support were in informal work and unstable situations and have been left with no safety net.
In response to this worsening situation, we have seen projects increase their services, with some offering support every day of the week. Catholic Churches and schools are involved with 356 food relief projects in Westminster Diocese, and a recent study into 25 of these projects showed 95,946 meals and food parcels were distributed from 1st July – 30th September 2020. This incredible response is just a snapshot of what is happening in the Diocese and the way faith groups are stepping forward.
Footballer Marcus Rashford’s headline-grabbing campaign for the provision of Free School Meals to continue in the holidays has seen huge support from the British Public. Caritas Westminster has backed this campaign and also joined The Children’s Society in calling for the permanent extension of Free School Meals to the children of migrants with No Recourse to Public Funds. We believe no child should go hungry because of their parents’ immigration status. We are also working with Magic Breakfast to support the School Breakfast Bill, calling for free breakfasts for children going without. Although these policies alone are not the solution to child food poverty, they are an important start in ensuring hunger does not disrupt children’s education during the pandemic.
In their letter to the Prime Minister, faith leaders underlined the central role faith groups play in providing emergency food relief, and made clear we will continue to do this work whilst it is needed. However, faith groups cannot tackle this issue alone, and in their letter the faith leaders call for a ‘comprehensive social security system’ and a ‘coherent, cross-government and cross-party strategy to tackle the underlying causes of child poverty, including low pay, educational disadvantage, and the shortage of affordable housing and childcare.’ Caritas Westminster backs this call and urges quick action to stop the concerning increases in poverty that we are seeing across the Diocese of Westminster.