Research by Shropshire Food Poverty Alliance (SFPA) has found that school staff are worried that children are missing meals at home, while the number of children eligible for free school meals has risen by 48 per cent since before the pandemic.
The alliance, which brings together council, health and voluntary organisations, surveyed 41 schools and 56 other groups over last winter and spring about how food insecurity is impacting children in the county.
The resulting report was presented to Shropshire Council’s health and wellbeing board at a meeting on Thursday.
SFPA co-ordinator Sophie Padgett said: “Probably the most concerning thing that came out of the report was the level of concern that people were reporting around children’s food insecurity.
“Of the schools we surveyed, 77 per cent were concerned that there were children within those schools that might be going hungry because there wasn’t enough food in the house.
“Rurality was consistently commented on as presenting additional barriers, and those barriers came in five main themes.
“They were lack of rural transport infrastructure, lack of affordable food retailers, the rural fuel premium that many households pay, limited or no internet access and the low wage economy that exists in Shropshire.”
Ms Padgett said there was concern that families in need are missing out on help they are entitled to, including ‘healthy start’ vouchers – a “vital nutritional safety net for low income households” – which are only being claimed by around 50 per cent of eligible Shropshire families.
She added: “When you look at free school meals there was concern that not all families who are eligible were signed up, but also that there were families that really could benefit from this support but didn’t qualify because the threshold is still really very low.
“Time and time again the barrier that was cited for coming forward for this sort of support was stigma. We heard it again and again.”
To combat this, Ms Padgett said the alliance was focussing on “putting dignity at the heart of any strands of work we do”.
There are also plans to launch a new campaign to publicise schemes such as healthy start vouchers in a bid to increase uptake.
Committee member Mark Brandreth, accountable officer for Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) said: “It’s interesting and sad at the same time. I’m sat here with an emotion of horror to be honest.
“I get the phrase ‘food insecurity’ – it’s the way we professionalise this – but I don’t like it. This is hungry kids, and I think we need to call a spade a shovel on some of this stuff.
“I am very concerned about the children and families that are eligible and not accessing.”
Mr Brandreth asked what local NHS partners should and should not be doing to help.
Ms Padgett said training was being carried out with front-line professionals who are able to do “light-touch signposting”, so that they know “how to approach those conversations sensitively”.