Young people in food poverty: a lost generation?

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Our opinion piece in BMJ Open (argues that young people growing up in poverty in the UK are at risk of becoming a ‘lost generation’. While the term ‘generation’ has several meanings, Mannheim’s concept of generation is helpful in understanding the effects of historical context and global events on young people during their formative years. During this pandemic young people are growing up in a period of massive material, educational, and emotional turbulence, and are facing an uncertain future.

In marked contrast to the years immediately following the 2008 financial crisis, when children’s experiences were notably absent from the media coverage of rising household food insecurity, over this last year, young people have become more visible. In particular, those living in poverty are beginning to command the attention of politicians. Marcus Rashford’s story of growing up in poverty has struck a chord with the public and has reversed the government’s intransigence on the provision of free school meals in the recent school holidays. Through impactful campaigns, such as those supported by NGOs including the Child Poverty Action Group, the Food Foundation, Church Action on Poverty, Sustain and Citizens UK, spaces are being created for children and young people to tell their stories.

These campaigns have had some success: for example, in securing extensions to the provision of free school meals in school holidays and – temporarily – for some children whose families have No Recourse to Public Funds. It is important to celebrate the vital work of schools and charities working tirelessly to ensure children are not going hungry in these unprecedented times. However, unless the wider causes of poverty are addressed, in the long run, food ‘solutions’ can only conserve the highly unequal status quo. As the Guardian columnist Aditya Chakraborrty puts it, citing Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, people are not ‘a ragbag of different physical needs to be met by a patchwork of largely volunteer organisations’, but ‘distinct human beings of infinite value’. Furthermore, although it is positive to see children’s experiences represented in public discussions about the impacts of covid-19 on low-income families, there is a lack of formal mechanisms for their policy participation. In this context it is hard to see how children and young people can meaningfully take part, or ‘actively participate in shaping responses’, to bring about radical social change.

The consequences of the covid-19 pandemic for young people living in low-income families in the UK, as well as the impact of Brexit, will continue to have profound effects on their health and education, as the children’s commissioner for England has noted. Only time will tell how badly the future of this generation will be marked by these events. Meanwhile, it is our duty not only to campaign on behalf of the health and welfare of young people, but to support the implementation of mechanisms that enable their participation in decisions that shape their lives. Children must be at the heart of efforts to rebuild intergenerational justice, and the country, after the Covid crisis.

Rebecca O’Connell and Julia Brannen

Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute fo Education

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