by Gav Aitchison

EDUCATION officials were quick to notice a couple of problems with the first school meals laws.

In 1906, Parliament allowed local authorities to provide food for schoolchildren – but it didn’t force them to do so. That legal obligation didn’t come until 1944. What’s more, officials and campaigners noted another issue: children needed good food every day, not only on school days, and it was unclear where the law began and ended.

In London, at Christmas 1908, the issue came to a head. The West Ham authorities unilaterally decided to keep feeding children during the Christmas holidays, while checking whether it was legally allowed to. Nobody seemed to know. In the London Daily News in February 1909, the phrase ‘holiday hunger’ appeared. TW Watts, chairman of the education committee, told that newspaper: “What we have done we believe to be right and humane, even if not strictly legal… the weather was so severe and the distress so acute at Christmas that we felt bound on the last day of the ordinary school to announce that the feeding centres would remain open to supply those children who were already in receipt of meals under the Act.”

That July, West Ham MP Will Thorne tabled a question in Parliament, but he was advised that education authorities would not be legally empowered to provide meals at public expense. Others continued to press the matter. In 1914, Bradford MP Fred Jowett cited experiments that had been carried out in his constituency, which clearly showed that children who were receiving school meals gained weight in term time, but then lost weight during the holidays when the meals were not available. Legislation that year removed the halfpenny limit on meal costs, and allowed local authorities to provide meals to children on non-school days, but it was still an option not an obligation.

In 1944, Parliament finally made the provision of meals on school days a requirement, not an option, but there was again no clarity around what councils could do on non-school days, so provision remained inconsistent.

The British Newspaper Archive and Hansard contain numerous reports of ad-hoc and inherently fragile provision. In 1975/76, 27 local authorities provided a total of 1,015,883 meals during the holidays. In 1977/78, 17 authorities provided a total of 779,555 holiday or Saturday meals. Much of the country had no provision, but it is scarcely conceivable that those places had no need at all, or that demand had vanished from 10 council areas in two years. The issue of children going hungry during school holidays reared its head in Parliament dozens of times, throughout almost every decade of the 1900s. The problem eased at times, through varying social welfare policies and as a side-effect of war-time rationing. But holiday hunger has flared up again many times.

Dr Victoria McGowan, an expert in the history of school meal provision, says: “Throughout history governments have intervened to reduce the burden of holiday hunger on children. The impending roll out of Universal Credit could lead to more families relying on food banks and holiday hunger schemes to see them through the school holidays. Without any form of mandated provision, Christmas could be the most miserable time of year for some of our nation’s children.”

Now there are signs the law may finally change. A Bill tabled by Labour backbencher Frank Field and working its way through Parliament calls on the Government to order all councils to provide food and activities in the holiday for children who might otherwise go hungry, and to give councils the funds they need, using receipts from the new sugar tax. So far, 130 MPs from six parties have pledged to support the bill, which is due to receive its second reading in January.

Dr McGowan says it won’t work on its own, without a broader suite of policies, but it’s a good place to start. And the End Hunger UK campaign is harnessing the determination of activists involved in inspiring work in their own communities.

Josh Fenton-Glynn, manager of the End Hunger UK campaign, says consensus is growing, and urges the Government to act. “Holiday hunger has been talked about on and off for more than a century, and now the tightening financial squeeze on household budgets has brought it into focus again, for millions of families. It’s time for Parliament to say enough is enough and to change the law. If they do so, it will improve the lives and prospects of millions of children, now and in the years to come.”

* For a full list of MPs supporting the new bill, visit