Volume 49, Issue 6 p. 1387-1402
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Open Access

Schools and food charity in England

William Baker

Corresponding Author

William Baker

School of Education, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK

Correspondence

William Baker, School of Education, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1JA, UK.

Email: [email protected]

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First published: 28 November 2023

Abstract

This paper critically examines the development of food charity in schools in England. Growing numbers of schools, often in partnership with charities and businesses, are directly providing food to parents who are struggling to feed their families. This paper analyses how and why this is happening and its broader significance. The growth of food charity in schools is explained through a mixture of a retreating welfare state, an ongoing cost of living crisis, the continued diffusion of charitable food aid as a socially accepted response to poverty and hunger in the United Kingdom, and schools having to adopt increasing responsibility for making sure that children's basic needs are being met. Drawing on semi-structured interview data gathered from school staff, this paper highlights how schools are becoming a new frontier for charitable food aid.

Key insights

What are the main issues that the paper addresses?

In the United Kingdom, large numbers of children are experiencing food insecurity. This is significant because food insecurity has a negative impact on a range of educational and social outcomes. In response, growing numbers of schools are providing food aid through food banks and food pantries.

What are the main insights that the paper provides?

A growing number of schools are providing food directly to low-income families. The problem of child food insecurity has been exacerbated by the cost of living crisis. This paper shows how school-based charitable food aid is a response to the growing number of families struggling financially and embodies the increased demands placed on schools to make sure children's basic needs are being met.

INTRODUCTION

In the United Kingdom, 4 million children live in households that experience food insecurity, despite living in the sixth wealthiest nation on earth (The Food Foundation, 2022a). The United Kingdom's ongoing cost of living crisis, following hot on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, has exacerbated this longstanding problem as the cost of food, heating and other basic goods has risen dramatically (The Food Foundation, 2022b). Inflation has recently been running at over 10% and living standards are falling at an unprecedented rate (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2022). Low-income and working-class families have been disproportionately affected by recent events and are routinely faced with the starkest of choices between ‘heating and eating’, and teachers are reporting large numbers of children coming to school hungry (Chefs in Schools, 2022).

As primary social institutions, schools are faced with decisions about how to respond to the collateral damage caused by widespread poverty, marginalisation and inequality. This paper is about how schools in England are increasingly offering charitable food aid to families and children in the face of escalating food insecurity. I critically evaluate how and why growing numbers of schools in England are running their own food banks, food pantries and related initiatives. Often partnering with large supermarkets, national food waste organisations and various food charities, schools are providing crucial support to children and families experiencing food insecurity. Drawing on rich semi-structured interview data with school staff from a range of primary and secondary schools in England, this paper provides original data and substantive new arguments that help to describe, explain and evaluate the development of food charity in schools. This illustrates how a rapidly growing patchwork of food charity initiatives is developing across schools in England. This acts to further normalise and institutionalise food charity within the education sector and society at large (Baker & Bakopoulou, 2023). Whilst the growth of food banks across the United Kingdom and other wealthy nations has been well documented (Fisher, 2017; Garthwaite, 2017; Loopstra et al., 2018; Riches, 2018), the development of charitable food aid in schools has received almost no scholarly attention. One notable exception is the important recent work by Bradbury and Vince (2023).

Although this paper is focused on England, it contributes to much broader international efforts to understand the development of food charity in the Global North—what Riches (2018) calls the ‘Food Bank Nations’. Riches argues that the spread of emergency food relief in wealthy nations reflects decades of neoliberal reforms that have weakened social safety nets and discusses how dealing with hunger has been ceded to charitable organisations that increasingly operate as a ‘shadow welfare state’ (Poppendieck, 1999; Riches, 2018; Rosenthal & Newman, 2019; Wolch, 1989). It is, he suggests, a ‘story of “left-over” food for “left behind” people enduring the pain of stigma and the loss of human dignity’ (Riches, 2018: 2). This paper shows how schools in England are becoming a new frontier for charitable food aid work.

The remainder of the paper is structured as follows. The next section defines food insecurity and provides crucial context that helps motivate the focus of the paper. The paper then develops a social theory of food charity in schooling; in doing so, various strands of literature are brought together. This is followed by a discussion of the research methods underpinning the project and a critical discussion of the empirical data. Finally, the conclusion points the direction for future research and the need for greater political, public and scholarly debate about food charity in schools.

DEFINITIONS AND CONTEXT

Food insecurity can be defined as having ‘limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food or having to acquire foods in socially unacceptable ways’ (Anderson, 1990: 1560). A simpler alternative is ‘the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints’ (Tarasuk et al., 2018: 210). Conversely, food security is defined as ‘access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life’ (USDA, n.d.). For the purposes of this paper, I refer to food charity in schools as the provision by schools of free food directly to families, often through food banks, food pantries or similar organisational structures. The terms ‘food charity’, ‘food aid’ and ‘charitable food aid’ are used interchangeably.

The Food Foundation, which regularly tracks food insecurity in the United Kingdom using nationally representative surveys, estimates that in September 2022, 25.2% of all households with children reported experiencing food insecurity (The Food Foundation, 2022a). This represents a higher level than even during the COVID-19 pandemic, and can be directly attributed to the cost of living crisis that has put significant pressure on living standards and family finances; families with children have been hit particularly hard (The Food Foundation, 2022b).

Child food insecurity and ‘holiday hunger’ have been socially and politically contentious issues in the United Kingdom for some time. Marcus Rashford's campaign to End Child Food Poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic acted as a lightning rod for public debate about the role of the state in tackling child poverty and hunger (Earl & Lalli, 2020; Lalli, 2023; Long et al., 2022). It also framed more recent debates about extending free school meal coverage. From September 2023, all primary school children in London will receive free school meals. This mirrors developments in Wales and Scotland that will also see the introduction of universal free school meal provision in primary schools. By highlighting the growth of school-based food charity initiatives, which are playing an increasingly important but often unacknowledged role in tackling child food insecurity, this paper informs these prominent public and political discussions.

This is crucial because the human, social and educational damage wrought by food insecurity and hunger is high, and should therefore be of central concern to educational researchers. The evidence is clear: food insecurity has a negative impact on children's development and educational attainment (Aurino et al., 2019; Heflin et al., 2019, 2020; Jyoti et al., 2005; Melchior et al., 2012). Crucially, as child food insecurity is socially patterned, it is also likely to be a mechanism through which social class, ethnic and racial inequalities in education are reproduced (Bowen et al., 2021). This makes it all the more surprising that scholarship on educational and social inequalities has given so little attention to something of such material and social significance—food (Shostak, 2023). Heflin has recently shown that food insecurity not only shapes the attainment of young children but ‘adolescent exposure may be particularly detrimental to secondary school completion and higher education outcomes’ (Heflin et al., 2020: 464). Other studies highlight that food insecurity impacts both mental and physical health and children's social skills (Cook & Frank, 2008; Gallegos et al., 2021). For example, Howard (2011) finds that food insecurity makes it harder for youth to form and maintain friendships, whilst Heflin et al. (2019) report that food-insecure youth experience high levels of psychological distress.

Developing a theory of food charity in schools

I now develop a novel social theory of the development of food charity in schools; this provides an analytical framework that can be evaluated and refined in future research. In summary, the embedding of food charity in schools primarily reflects four social, economic and political processes connected to a retreating welfare state, rising poverty and neoliberal forms of governance. An obvious starting point is to draw on the rich literature on the development of food banks in general across the United Kingdom over the last decade (Garthwaite, 2017; Lambie-Mumford, 2017, 2019). A central argument in this literature is that the development of food banks across the United Kingdom reflects a decade-long period of ‘austerity’ and welfare state retrenchment following the 2008 financial crash (Lambie-Mumford, 2017). This led to a significant reduction in government spending in key areas of welfare provision, which undermined the social safety net. Growing welfare conditionality, punitiveness and the introduction of Universal Crediti are widely blamed for increasing poverty, destitution and food insecurity, helping to explain why people end up at the door of food banks (Loopstra et al., 2018; Reeves & Loopstra, 2020).

Three aspects of these broader changes increase the risk of low-income families being pushed further into poverty and experiencing food insecurity. Firstly, the introduction of a ‘benefits cap’, which limits the amount of benefits individuals and families can receive (Reeves et al., 2022: 348). Secondly, the introduction of the ‘two child’ limit policy, which restricts the child entitlement component of Universal Credit; this helps to explain why almost 42% of families with more than two children routinely experience food insecurity (The Food Foundation, 2022b; The Joseph Rowntree Foundation/The Trussell Trust, 2023). Finally, in 2018, restrictive income criteria were introduced for accessing free school meals: families in receipt of Universal Credit must earn less than £7400 a year after tax to qualify for free school meals in England. With the threshold set so low, it is not surprising that almost 800,000 children in England are living in poverty but do not qualify for free school meals (Child Poverty Action Group, 2022).

The consequences of these shifts in social policy can be seen in the growing number of emergency food parcels being distributed by the Trussell Trust, the United Kingdom's biggest foodbank network. In 2022 the Trussell Trust provided 2.1 million food parcels, an 81% increase over 5 years (The Joseph Rowntree Foundation/The Trussell Trust, 2023). Some Conservative politicians have attempted to frame the rise of food banks as a praiseworthy communitarian response to a social problem, becoming an archetypal example of what the former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (2010–2016) optimistically referred to as the ‘Big Society’ (Lambie-Mumford & Sims, 2018). In contrast, Garthwaite concludes that ‘Although foodbanks provide a lifeline to those using them, they are picking up the pieces of a broken social security safety net’ (Garthwaite, 2017: 14). Food banks, a common presence in towns and cities across the country, are now diffusing into the education system as localised responses to entrenched poverty and the ongoing cost of living crisis.

The second part of my argument, which is also connected to the legacies of austerity and welfare state retrenchment, is that schools are increasingly having to perform the role of a ‘fourth emergency service’ as they are being pushed to provide support and services to children that are not available elsewhere (Adams, 2019; The Joseph Rowntree Foundation/The Trussell Trust, 2023). This situation has also been exacerbated by the United Kingdom's ongoing cost of living crisis. Emerging evidence suggests that schools are increasingly providing necessities to children in the form of food, clothing, shoes and cleaning products (NASUWT, 2022). This can also be traced to longer term cuts in local and central government budgets, which have led to the scaling back of child and family support services—from children's centres to social care, youth work and crucial mental health services—and amount to state-orchestrated ‘institutional neglect’ (Hanley et al., 2020; Kiely & Warnock, 2022). Geoff Barton, the General Secretary of the Association of Schools and College Leaders, has concluded that ‘A decade of austerity has wreaked havoc with the social fabric of the nation and schools have been left to pick up the pieces while coping with real-term funding cuts’. It is against this backdrop that the development of food charity in schools must be understood.

The literature on food banks has thus far not recognised the growing role of schools in providing food directly to families. As this literature does not provide the range of intellectual resources to explain why and how this is happening in schools, it is helpful to broaden the paper's theoretical focus further and consider how changes within England's fractured education system have created fertile conditions for the development of charitable food aid within schools. Of relevance here is scholarship examining the privatisation and marketisation of education that has highlighted the increasing role of non-state actors in education (Ball, 2009a; Winchip et al., 2019). This includes not only businesses and corporations but also charities and philanthropic organisations (Ball & Junemann, 2013).

Thirdly, and in support of this literature, I propose that food charity in schools embodies a further blurring of the boundaries between the state, the private sector and the ‘third sector’ in various aspects of education (Ball & Junemann, 2013). It reflects a new way in which businesses, the third sector and charitable organisations are being further integrated into England's contemporary educational landscape (Ball & Junemann, 2013; Junemann & Ball, 2013).

The rise of concepts like ‘network governance’, ‘heterarchical governance’ and the ‘polycentric state’ has been well placed to make sense of developments in national and global education policy, particularly regarding the growing role of non-governmental organisations in crafting education policy (Ball, 2009b; Jessop, 2016; Junemann & Ball, 2013). It is important to note, however, that these changing modes of governance have consequences at the micro-level and shape the day-to-day labour of how children get looked after in schools and by school staff. For example, in trying to help families and fix a ‘wicked’ social problem in the form of food insecurity, schools are becoming embedded in increasingly complex networks of individuals, businesses, charities and food organisations. Moreover, these network structures create further opportunities to engage in food charity work and help to normalise and institutionalise the development of charitable food aid in schools. Understanding the formation and dynamics of these relationships requires us to think beyond the simple binary of the market and the state.

Finally, the role of charities in school-based food aid is important to note—it is suggestive of the increasingly important way in which governments in ‘advanced’ welfare states rely on ‘charitable outsourcing’ to provide welfare support to those in poverty and leads to the further ‘mainstreaming’ of charitable work within schools (Clarke & Parsell, 2022; Parsell et al., 2021, 2022; Power & Taylor, 2018; Rosenthal & Newman, 2019). Again, this can be attributed to a shrinking social safety net, with charities stepping in to try and make sure people's basic needs are being met. This line of argument can be applied more broadly to help make sense of the situation facing many schools: during a period of intense pressure on school budgets, many are turning to charities, organisations, charitable fundraising and donations to not only obtain food but also clothes, shoes and other basic goods—from chairs to books.

Some qualifying points

The interlinked arguments outlined above cohere into a social theory that can help to explain the development of food charity in schools in England. Before I present the empirical data to ground and justify this account, a few clarifications are in order. Firstly, in presenting food charity in schools as a relatively recent development, it should be acknowledged that schools in England have historically played a crucial role in providing food to low-income and working-class pupils (Vernon, 2007). Secondly, in emphasising the growing importance of non-state actors and charities in education, this does not represent a fundamental break in welfare provision—the United Kingdom has long had a ‘mixed-economy of welfare’ (Alcock, 2016). Finally, although educational and sociological research has historically neglected the study of food, and particularly its connection to inequalities (see Shostak, 2023), important work has been done in this area; this paper extends and helps to develop this nascent body of scholarship (Cardoso et al., 2019; Gooseman et al., 2020; Lalli, 2021, 2023; Lambie-Mumford & Sims, 2018).

RESEARCH METHODS

Building on the findings and arguments made above, I now draw on qualitative data from an ongoing project examining the rise of food charity in schools. The project involves collecting data from both school staff and parents to understand why schools are providing charitable food aid, how this is organised and achieved, and how it is experienced by those involved. Data collection began in May 2022 and is continuing as the project develops. This approach helps to develop a holistic picture of this understudied development and is cognisant of the need to include the experiences of those experiencing poverty, food insecurity and marginalisation (Garthwaite, 2016). For the purposes of this paper, however, the focus is on the school staff involved in school-based food charity work. This allows for the institutional and organisational processes relevant to the development of food charity in schools to be brought into analytical focus.

Snowballing and purposive sampling have been used to gather semi-structured interview data from school staff in 25 different schools across England. Some schools were identified through personal referrals, internet searches, newspaper coverage and schools' own websites and social media accounts. Others were identified through the websites of food aid charities that provided food to the schools, listed or identifiable on their webpages. For example, in one case, a medium-sized academy chain of eight schools regularly worked with a food aid charity. Recruiting and identifying participants for inclusion in the study was also achieved through initial screening of emails and phone calls. In almost all cases, an initial discussion took place to (a) gain consent, (b) explain the scope of the project and (c) explore if the school provided some kind of charitable food aid to families. In order to take part in the study, the school had to currently be providing free or heavily discounted food to families on a regular basis, support more than five families and store food on the school site. A further inclusion criterion was that the food charity work had to be institutionalised—that is, deliberately and knowingly adopted by the school and not done on an ad-hoc or temporary basis.

The goal of the sampling strategy was to achieve both breadth and depth in the data, gathered from 10 schools in the city of Bristol and 15 schools from other regions, towns and cities across the United Kingdom. These include Liverpool, Leicester, London, Birmingham and smaller towns in the northwest and southeast of England. This allows for the data to consider the social dynamics of food aid in schools within a specific city-wide context whilst also capturing a broader, albeit partial, national picture. A total of 27 interviews have been conducted so far.

At each school a relevant member of staff was identified and recruited; typically, only one or two individuals took the lead in supporting families' access to food. In terms of demographic characteristics, all but one of the interviewees was male, the majority were over 40 and most had longstanding careers in education with a particular interest in supporting families and the community the school served. It is important to note that most staff (n = 22) interviewed and involved were not teachers; they were predominantly pastoral support staff (often called Family Support Workers) or more senior staff with management, wellbeing and safeguarding responsibilities. Some of the interviewees worked as cleaners and in administrative roles. Most schools served working-class and low-income communities. Significantly more staff were in primary schools (n = 17) than secondary schools (n = 10). In some respects, this is unsurprising as there are many more primary schools than secondary schools. It may also be that primary schools are observing more families struggling to access food because families with young children are particularly at risk of experiencing food insecurity (Gallegos et al., 2021).

Data was collected through a mixture of online (n = 10) and in-person interviews (n = 17). This was complemented through field notes, observations from visits to schools to see charitable food aid ‘in action’ and dozens of more informal conversations with school leaders and staff. Semi-structured interviews provide the necessary balance between the structure and flexibility required to explore people's individual experiences, beliefs and approaches to food charity in schools but also allows for the exploration of commonalities across schools and individuals. Looking at the length and quality of the interview data, there was nothing to suggest that the online interviews were inferior to those conducted in person (Lobe et al., 2022). In important respects, online interviews allowed for a much broader range of perspectives to be included and placed less of a burden on the schedules of busy school staff. Interviews typically lasted 50 min.

All the interviews were transcribed and read multiple times before they were entered into NVIVO. Following each interview, detailed summary memos were produced to record initial thoughts and reflections. This also helped to generate initial codes and themes when the data was analysed more systematically. Data was analysed using the broad framework of thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2022). This involved following the six-step approach recommended by Braun and Clarke: familiarisation, generating initial codes, searching for themes, reviewing themes, naming themes and writing up (Braun & Clarke, 2006: 80; see also Maguire & Delahunt, 2017). Familiarisation with the data played a key role in helping to generate codes and identify relevant themes; this more inductive strategy was complemented by a more deductive approach to coding and data analysing that was informed by existing theory and evidence. By this I mean the core arguments, evidence and theories helped to develop codes and thematic categories to identify patterns in the data that helped make sense of how staff explained and described the development of food charity in schools. In this view, deductive and indictive approaches to data analysis are complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

DATA ANALYSIS

Poverty and precarity: Why schools provide food

Poverty, financial distress and destitution are all motivating factors for why staff opened food bank and food pantries, and emerged as key themes. This offers support for the view that families' economic precarity is a primary driver of why they access food aid and food banks (Garthwaite, 2016; Loopstra et al., 2016, 2018). Danielle, who is a family support worker in a deprived primary school in a small coastal town, provided a poignant example of one family's reported experience that motivated her to organise a school-based food bank:

She [Mum] was pregnant at home. And she had one jacket potato for tea and no cereal. They had no cereal for breakfast. And the daughter had said to her Mum, ‘but they'll help us in our school’. And we didn't have our food bank at that time. ‘They help with all sorts of stuff mum, write a letter.’ And she said, ‘Write it for me’. So she wrote, ‘My mum was really struggling. We haven't got any gas. We haven't got any food for tonight, please can you help’ and she gave it to a teacher who then gave it to the head teacher. And she was like, ‘Of course we can’.

The data analysis highlighted a range of similar stories. From the perspective of those working in schools, the levels of food insecurity and financial distress being observed meant that they often felt morally and practically compelled to offer help. Although schools often adopted a food bank model—mimicking organisational responses to food insecurity in society at large—staff also reported that food banks often could not provide families with sufficient or regular enough food to feed their families. They therefore provided food to families on a weekly or fortnightly basis.

Food and the cost of living crisis

Gemma, the head of a Parent–Teacher Association in a school on the south coast, further reflected this perspective when she associated growing poverty and food insecurity with the cost of living crisis. She explained her desire to open the school's ‘free pantry’, which operated out of a shed next to the playground, in similarly stark terms: ‘there are families in our school who are not eating between Friday afternoon and Monday morning’. Lucy, a teacher in another school, highlighted the challenges facing larger families:

I go to some families… there are four or five sharing a bedroom. They don't have enough food, they don't eat typically well because they can't afford it, and that's no fault of their own….

The cost of living crisis, food prices and spiralling energy bills all loomed large in conversations about why families were turning to schools for food and why schools were providing it. The data supports the argument that the recent economic climate and challenges facing the United Kingdom are crucial for understanding the development of charitable food aid in schools in England (Gooseman et al., 2020; The Food Foundation, 2022b).

Importantly, rather than seeing it as a temporary response to a transient problem, interviewees appeared to assume that this work would continue indefinitely. This is significant because food aid is often assumed to be an ‘emergency’ response to acute food insecurity, although the evidence suggests that charitable food aid work, when it becomes established, is rarely stopped or replaced by government taking steps to raise the incomes of the poor and destitute (Fisher, 2017; Riches, 2018). In support of this, my data suggests that food aid in schools is rapidly becoming a ‘normal’ part of how schools serving low-income communities support families. From an organisational perspective, it was striking that food aid projects in schools were typically initiated from the ‘bottom up’ rather than being driven by a clear school strategy or policy.

Welfare reforms and Universal Credit

In further support of the general literature on the drivers of food bank usage, benefits and welfare reforms were highlighted as proximate causes of food insecurity that pushed people to access school food aid (Loopstra et al., 2018; Reeves et al., 2022). As is well known, larger families are particularly at risk of experiencing food insecurity and were therefore a group who often received support through school-based food aid (The Food Foundation, 2022b). A striking pattern in the data was how regularly the welfare system was identified as a reason families turned to schools for help. Again, this mirrors the general literature on food banks, which focuses on the importance of welfare state retrenchment and particularly the introduction of Universal Credit as causes of food insecurity (Reeves & Loopstra, 2020; Reeves et al., 2022). Multiple school staff made specific references to how Universal Credit forced families to rely on food charity from schools. The quotes below are instructive:

And especially those that are swapping onto Universal Credit, because it's less than what they're on before. And we have that period where you swap where you haven't got any [money]. Yeah, and you've got nothing. I've had quite a few families say that I haven't got any money or anything. (Jackie)

… a lot of people that are on Universal Credit are on the breadline, where their children don't qualify for those free schools [meals]. And those children are forgotten about…. (Louise)

Jackie's comment highlights how Universal Credit in general fails to provide families with sufficient financial resources to cover their basic needs—from heating to food, cleaning products and clothes; this is because Universal Credit is becoming further disconnected from the actual cost of living. Louise drew attention to the fact that for many families, despite being on Universal Credit, they were also earning just enough to not be eligible for free school meals; they fell just the wrong side of an entitlement ‘cliff edge’.

A theme across the interviews was the challenges facing ‘just about managing’ families who were rapidly being pulled into poverty:

Sometimes it's the ones who have free school meals and sometimes it's the next lot up that are working families and just have absolutely no money at all and no-one to support them or help them with that because they just miss it. The jam families—and they're the ones we worry about most. (Kathy)

… it's not the kids on the free school meals as such, it's those who just missed that, that they're on the borderline, that actually, they can't get free school meals, because they're like £10 more than just what the threshold is, and they're just about managing, so with everything else [that] is going to happen, they're not going to be able to manage. And that I think it's a scary thing. (Diane)

These comments make clear how there can be a million children living in poverty in the United Kingdom that do not receive free school meals (Child Poverty Action Group, 2022). Staff reported that families with more than two children were particularly vulnerable to food security and often a priority for their food support work. Again, this can be partly linked back to the financial challenges facing large families with the introduction of the two child benefit cap (Reeves et al., 2022) Finally, the interviewees consistently drew attention to the fact that food insecurity was not only a problem facing the poorest families; it was widespread and creeping up the income distribution, which is why they felt the need to provide direct food aid to families. This helps to make sense of the broader empirical picture, with up to a quarter of all families with young children experiencing food insecurity (The Food Foundation, 2022b).

Schools as a ‘fourth emergency service’

School food banks and food pantries are emblematic of schools acting as crucial anchor institutions in the face of a retreating welfare state and the underfunding of services that should provide a supportive ecology for families, communities and child development (Kiely & Warnock, 2022). A pattern that emerged from the data was that schools felt compelled to take responsibility for ameliorating the effects of broader social problems by, in effect, providing ‘crisis’, ‘emergency’ and ‘universal’ services. As one interviewee pointed out, this is a necessary condition for them to be able to teach children and for them to learn. As she said, ‘a hungry child does not learn in the same way that a child does with a full belly…’. In discussing the broader circumstances that led them to create a food bank, one school leader remarked: ‘We are literally the fourth emergency service.’ In many schools with food banks and food pantries, they provided low-income families not only with food but also with shoes, clothes and cleaning products. As was discussed earlier in developing the theoretical model, school food aid can usefully be interpreted as a signal example of ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ schooling in the face of an increasingly fractured and threadbare social safety net (Adams, 2019; The Joseph Rowntree Foundation/The Trussell Trust, 2023).

On one school visit, I observed a neat stack of two dozen new black shoes that were for pupils whose families could not afford to buy them; they sat next to boxes of cereal and pasta. A family support worker reflected on the expense of shoes and uniforms. She remarked: ‘We do an awful lot around uniform as well. We've got a second-hand uniform shop and parents donate what they don't use any more’ (Amanda). The increasing pressure and responsibility placed on schools to deal with hunger and other challenges facing working-class and marginalised students was attributed to broader cuts in services:

Yeah, it was austerity… we're seen as the universal service, one of the most important universal services… because other services aren't there anymore. (Angela)

They tend to come to us for a lot, for services and support… If they're unwell, they'll come in and go ‘my Mum's told me to come and tell you’, … it's because they can't get hold of a doctor. They can't get the appointments at the doctors… Many of the services have shut down. We're their point of contact every single day and they kind of see us as [a] one size fits all service. (Siobhan)

It is therefore important to recognise that charitable food aid in schools has emerged partly due to austerity and a changing logic of social welfare. This has weakened the social safety net and schools are increasingly faced with food-insecure and vulnerable families with few places left to turn to (NASUWT, 2022).

School food aid initiatives are remarkably heterogenous in scope and size. Some described what they offered as a ‘food bank’, a ‘food pantry’, a ‘community shop’ or a ‘free shop’. This descriptive variation occurred because some school staff were sensitive to the pejorative social meaning of the term ‘food bank’. This partly explains why many schools framed food aid in a positive way as contributing to reducing food waste—many schools sourced food from charities and supermarkets that was approaching its sell-by date and would otherwise go to waste. One teacher commented that they were ‘redistributing food that would otherwise go to landfill’ (Jenny). However it was described, the schools in the project all provided free food directly to families and on a regular basis if they needed it; this differs from typical emergency food banks, which often restrict the number of food parcels people can receive to three a year.

Food networks: Charities, businesses and marketisation

There was also diversity in where the schools received food from. Schools with smaller food banks or food pantries relied on donations from parents or school staff. Joanna commented that ‘we get donations from the other parents so it fundamentally comes from that, but some donate money instead so therefore we can then go and buy fresh food’. Schools operating in this way were reliant on one or two staff purchasing food in the evenings or weekends before it could be provided to families. However, most had more formalised arrangements with food waste charities, organisations and supermarkets. FareShare—the largest national food waste redistribution network—was a particularly important actor and food supplier to schools. A range of schools in the study paid FareShare for weekly deliveries of fresh and ambient goods. What this shows is how schools are increasingly turning to charities and partnering with them to solve community and school problems. A senior leader in a school reflected that they drew on the school budget to do so:

I've paid £700, but that is for the term time, for the whole academic year, term time, and I pick up every Thursday, for this week and next week. So £700, but what they give us back in return is pretty good I would say. We've never had that element of fresh fruit and veg before with Morrison's. (Amia)

Although most appreciated the food they received from FareShare, some interviewees questioned the quality of the food provided and its cultural appropriateness. Staff also stressed, for the most part, that they were only providing a ‘top up’ to people's weekly shopping. In most settings staff also tried to restrict the amount of food that people could take, limiting it to a certain number of items or bags.

Those involved in school-based charity had often relied on support and food from supermarkets—some of the largest corporations in the country that are often criticised for contributing to the country's dysfunctional food system (Lang, 2021). Here we can see the development of new networks that bring schools, businesses, charities and the private sector together in response to food insecurity. This is highlighted in the following comments:

Morrison's… they actually introduced us to FareShare. We had a collaboration meeting in here, we talked about it, and actually had some other people join us as well talking about menu choices, and how we could all work together better. (Kate)

… we've got this good relationship with Marks and Spencer and Lidl and they are donating us food surplus that would only be going to waste. (Julia)

Rather than delivering food, school staff often had to pick up left-over food directly from the supermarkets. Some supermarkets had ‘community champions’ who acted as a link between the supermarket and the school, one of whom commented that she thought ‘all schools should have a food bank’. As we can see, a sometimes hidden way in which marketisation and privatisation can happen is through these types of partnerships, where major corporations provide food directly to schools in low-income neighbourhoods. This modality of how private companies and organisations become involved in schooling has so far not been acknowledged in the literatures on marketisation and privatisation in schooling (e.g., Ball & Junemann, 2013).

Schools also relied on charitable donations from individuals and local charities for fridges, space and food to stock their food pantries and food banks. Taken together, this highlights how food insecurity and the responses to it are increasingly bringing large businesses and organisations into schools, often under the banner of philanthropy and supporting local communities (Fisher, 2017). The range of actors involved in providing food to schools also highlights how school food aid is reliant upon charitable giving and voluntary contributions to make their food aid work viable. We can see that as part of the broader pattern of dealing with hunger and food insecurity through charity rather than state institutions (Parsell et al., 2021, 2022).

Schools' food aid operations also varied substantially regarding their size, the frequency with which food was distributed, the number of families that needed support and where the food was sourced from. Katie, who helped run a food bank, reflected on the number of people they supported: ‘there are a core of 20 people who are definitely always there’. Most interviewees reported that they supported 15–20 families on a regular basis. In several larger secondary schools in areas of acute deprivation, 30–40 families were regularly receiving charitable food aid. Although most schools made food available throughout the week for emergency situations, the most common approach was to have a set day and time a week that food could be collected:

They [FareShare] do a drop off and then Tracy will put it all out on the table. Store the cold stuff inside if it needs to be in the fridge. And then the parents come in when the gates open at 3ish, and then they just come up and help themselves to what they want. Some people come with bags already, because they know it's Tuesday.

They come out every Monday. We used to send an email out to all the families to say FareShare is here, it's in the office for people to come and fill their bag… and now it's put out at the end of the day so it's in the playground.

Whilst some schools were very public about offering food and put tables of food out in the playground or near the school's main reception, others had a more cautious approach that protected parents' identities. Both of these approaches were grounded in concerns about stigma, shame and embarrassment—social emotions regularly experienced by food bank users (Beck & Gwilym, 2020; Garthwaite, 2016). Many schools sought to normalise food aid by publicising it and making it public. Other, smaller schools often took a more discreet approach with food aid offered ‘under the radar’:

When FareShare arrives, I put two bags together, so mum comes in and I give those to her. (Karen)

We've got this little parent room next to the office that's quite discreet, like no one really knows. (Sheila)

Across all the interviews there was recognition of the moral complexity of providing free food to families. A range of interviewees argued that because they had ongoing relationships with parents and often framed the food in terms of not letting it go to waste, receiving school food aid was less stigmatising than attending a food bank. However, they also acknowledged the ongoing moral complexities around providing school-based food aid.

CONCLUSION

This paper has critically examined, for the first time, the rise of charitable food aid in schools in England. This is significant for the educational research community because it is crucial to better understand the sheer scale of the challenge faced by schools in responding to child food insecurity and hunger, both of which have a highly damaging impact on a host of child outcomes, including educational attainment (Cook & Frank, 2008; Gallegos et al., 2021; Heflin et al., 2019, 2020).

I have provided crucial and novel data on how a patchwork of food banks, food pantries and similar initiatives are rapidly developing across schools in England. I have argued that rising food insecurity, entrenched poverty, the cost of living crisis and significant welfare reforms have led to a shrinking social safety net, and helped create the conditions where schools feel compelled to introduce charitable food aid initiatives. Moreover, the growing role of charities, organisations and other non-state actors in the English education system, assisted by longer term processes of marketisation and privatisation, has led to the development of complex networks of actors coming together within schools to tackle food insecurity. The fact that school-based food charity appears to be becoming rapidly normalised and institutionalised across schools in England should be acknowledged and debated; this paper provides a catalyst for the necessary conversation. The paper has important policy implications: it highlights how current benefit levels systematically fail to provide families with the income they need for food during a cost of living crisis and that universal free school meals would enable greater numbers of children in poverty to receive food.

As with any research project, there are of course limitations that should be considered. Although the participants have been recruited from schools across England, there is still a need to develop a broader body of empirical evidence about the number of schools that provide charitable food aid, how they operate in practice and how they may differ across key characteristics such as geography and school type. In addition, the focus of the paper has been on England. Whilst there are significant differences in education systems across the United Kingdom, many of the processes identified here nevertheless operate across national boundaries. Conducing comparative studies of food charity in schools is an important next step for scholarship in this area. A final issue worth considering is that the paper relies on interviews from a single time point. Adopting a more longitudinal approach by conducting follow-up interviews would shed light on how school-based food charity work is developing over time. This is important given the pace of developments.

An important concern about the rising number of school-based food banks is how this shapes our understanding of how poverty and food insecurity should be tackled. Right to food advocates have rightly pointed out that states have legally binding obligations under various human rights commitments to ensure citizens have the economic and social means to purchase sufficient food to feed themselves; they also argue that these commitments are not consistent with large-scale charitable food aid sectors (Fisher, 2017; Lambie-Mumford, 2017; Riches, 2018). There is a risk that school food aid side-steps these issues and depoliticises hunger. It may lead to pupils, parents and school staff coming to see food charity as a normative and politically desirable solution to food insecurity.

The data and arguments provided in this paper help extend the literature on food banks and food charity, which has so far not given sufficient attention to school-based food aid initiatives. Moreover, the paper contributes to international efforts to further understand the continued entrenchment and diffusion of food aid across many ‘advanced’ industrial economies (Riches, 2018). It highlights the need for scholars of poverty and educational inequality to pay greater attention to food insecurity and food aid in schools due to its developmental, social and normative significance (Shostak, 2023). As food insecurity is disproportionately experienced by working-class and racially minoritised pupils, it is also an under-explored way in which educational inequalities can be reproduced. Further quantitative work in the United Kingdom could fruitfully examine more closely the links between educational attainment and food insecurity. It is crucial that future qualitative work centres on the voices of those who receive food charity from schools—something I intend to do in future papers. This will make it even clearer how, in one of the richest societies in the world, millions of families are struggling to provide something so basic and necessary to their children—food.

FUNDING INFORMATION

Funding for this research has been provided by the University of Bristol by a University Research Fellowship.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST STATEMENT

There are no conflicts of interest to declare.

ETHICS STATEMENT

The research underpinning this research adhered to the Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research published by the British Educational Research Association.

Endnote

  • i Universal Credit is a benefit paid to those not in work or on a low income to help with living costs, including housing and childcare.
  • DATA AVAILABILITY STATEMENT

    Research data are not shared.