‘Nobody wants their family to face adversity and poverty – prevention is key’

Empty plates on the steps of Ipswich Town Hall to protest against the government's recent free schoo

Empty plates on the steps of Ipswich Town Hall to protest against the government's recent free school meals decision. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

The free school meals row has highlighted the financial pressure that many families are under. Tara Spence, chief executive of the charity Home-Start in Suffolk, says more must be done to prevent this in the first place.

Chief executive of Home-Start in Suffolk, Tara Spence Picture: ANDREW PAPWORTH

Chief executive of Home-Start in Suffolk, Tara Spence Picture: ANDREW PAPWORTH - Credit: Archant

The government vote on allowing access to free school meals over the half term has dominated headlines over the last week.

The refusal to provide access to free school meals to the 1.4million children across England has led to what can only be described as an uprising in support offers from individuals and businesses to ensure that no one gets left behind.

Over the weekend, Home-Start in Suffolk saw a 909% increase in people accessing the page that contains details of foodbanks on our website.

Over the past few weeks, we have heard so many heartbreaking stories of families in need. Food is the ask, the circumstances hard to hear.

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Over the past 14 years being at the helm of Home-Start Suffolk has meant that I have heard thousands of stories of need, so many amazing examples of help, support and the best of humanity.

What I have learnt is that no one wants their family to face adversity and poverty, but that in many situations, a range of sometimes minimal preventative actions can help to prevent people from being in this position.

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We work with hundreds of parents who are doing everything they can to give their children the best possible start in life, parents like Kevin, who became the sole carer of his daughter after her mother took her own life.

Kevin was living in a damp, cold flat when we first met him, struggling with PTSD and looking after Daisy, who was herself struggling with the loss of her mother.

Kevin’s initial need was food and accommodation support, which Jean, the volunteer we match him with helped with as a priority. But it didn’t end there. Jean worked with Kevin to help plan meals, budget and they worked together to learn a range of healthy, low cost recipes which Kevin could make for Daisy.

She also supported Kevin to access literacy support and training to give him opportunities for employment for when Daisy started school. This put Kevin in control of his support, which is something that is so important, we all want to be in control of our own destiny.

The state of economy due to Covid, means that the needs of families already struggling is being exacerbated and with the end of the furlough scheme this is only going to worsen.

The amazing offers from local communities has been astounding and certainly plugs a gap. However, we have a duty to ensure that no family needs to be in the position of needing to access such services in the first place.

Since the pandemic started, local charities, ours being one, have seen donations and fundraising income dry up. Whilst there have been many new and existing formal funders that have provided grants and income, many of these have been directed at the most challenging of needs that people are experiencing as a result of the pandemic.

What is now missing is the funding that would traditionally have come from some of those grants, from donations and fundraising to do the more flexible, preventative work, supporting the people and families who with minimal support, would not need to access further services.

So Suffolk, I’ve got an ask, in fact two asks.

When you are contacting your MP about food poverty, remind them that they have a duty to ensure that no family or child should ever be in this position in the first place and they need to fund prevention.

And secondly, consider donating or fundraising for local charities. It just takes a little research to find out who does what in your local area and instead of donating to the large national charities, remember that local charities have a direct impact in the area you live in, for the people you see every day and they do it with the knowledge and expertise of people in Suffolk; and your support directly improves the lives of Suffolk people and means less hardship.

• Tara Spence is the chief executive of Home-Start in Suffolk

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