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City Harvest food recipient, Cyril Jackson primary, feeds families and children in crisis

Hunger is now on the rampage. It marches ever closer, penetrating our communities and schools, even breaching the walls of our houses and flats. It may be next door. It may have entered your home. 

Words by JP Aubin-Parvu ( 

Child Poverty Action Group analysis shows that some 800,000 children in England living in households on universal credit don’t qualify for free school meals because their annual household earnings exceed £7400 (after tax and excluding benefits). This low threshold means that many children from working families in poverty miss out, despite their parents being unable to meet the costs of food. Nowhere is this dire situation more acute than in the capital, where 41 percent of children in poverty miss out on free school meals. 

In response, the Feed the Future campaign, coordinated by the Food Foundation and backed by a coalition of organisations, is calling on the Government to extend free school meals to all children living in universal credit households.  

The cost of living crisis is already biting down hard on the most vulnerable as food and utility prices soar. Behind the statistics are the very real children and their families who struggle
just to survive, facing constant anxiety about what winter may bring. Many already experience crisis every single day. 

City Harvest London exists to help these people and strongly supports the Feed the Future
campaign. The charity rescues nutritious surplus food and delivers it to more than 375 charities across the capital, including soup kitchens, refuges, family centres and, increasingly, school food banks. 

Schools such as Cyril Jackson Primary in Tower Hamlets, where nurturing pupils goes far beyond the traditional realms of reading and writing.  

“No child can go hungry in my school,” insists headteacher Hodo Dirir. “If pupils come into
school saying they’re hungry, we feed them. Our duty of care is to ensure that we support our families. But it’s difficult. And that’s why organisations like City Harvest do an incredible job in supporting schools, because what they provide is just amazing.” 

Hodo is firmly behind the Feed the Future campaign.  

“Ultimately we want our pupils to come into school ready to learn,” she says. “They need the energy and the right nutrition to be able to access the rich curriculum that we offer. And any support that we get is helpful.” 

Tower Hamlets is one of only four London boroughs to offer universal free school meals to pupils from Reception class though to Year 6. 

“But that’s from Reception, not from Nursery,” explains Hodo. “I have pupils from Nursery to
Year 6.” 

Hodo stresses that life has been extremely challenging for her families since the first lockdown, which is now being amplified by spiralling living costs. As the cracks widen more and more families teeter on the edge or have fallen through. Many who just about managed before the pandemic have seen their circumstances change. Some parents lost work temporarily, others permanently. 

“We are aware of our free school meal pupils and so we’ve plugged in and ensured that we have support in place for them,” explains Hodo. “But we also have families who don’t yet
meet the criteria. There are families that have been made redundant, that are struggling, and so we’re also worried about them.” 

Cyril Jackson Primary School supports many vulnerable families. For example, it is linked to a women’s refuge and has also welcomed an influx of children from families newly arrived to this country from Bangladesh via Italy, plus others from Ukraine.

That support may come in the form of nutritious food, whether that’s given to families at the Friday afternoon food bank or fed directly to pupils at the breakfast and after school clubs as well as during lunchtime.

“You’ve got kids coming in and they haven’t had breakfast,” insists Hodo. “They are starving. How do we expect them to learn? We have to feed them.” 

Giving support is only possible once you know who actually needs it. The school has been proactively sending out confidential questionnaires to ask parents to let them know if they’re struggling. That way the school can look to offer bespoke support. 

Hodo is constantly looking for additional ways to make the lives of her families easier. 

“We are planning to do some parent workshops,” she says. “The school has become this safe hub for them and so I’m trying to connect with a range of organisations, to get them to come in and talk to our parents about the different kinds of support that’s available to them.” 

Hodo doesn’t possess a crystal ball, but is under no illusions about just how bad things are likely to get for these vulnerable families.  

“Oh it’s going to be horrific,” she sighs.  

Cyril Jackson Primary School launched its food bank at the beginning of lockdown and has seen it become firmly embedded in the school’s culture. 

“The food bank is incredible,” insists Hodo. “The fruit and vegetables are like nothing I’ve ever seen – fresh tomatoes, avocados, onions, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, bananas. We have the different spices, cereal, beans, bread and bagels, various drinks. Honestly, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and ASDA have nothing on Cyril Jackson on a Friday afternoon.” 

Hodo is at pains to praise the work of City Harvest in helping to support her families.

“Oh my goodness,” she declares. “I cannot tell you. It is paramount to us being able to do what we do. I just want to echo the incredible work that City Harvest do, and to thank them for the support they provide schools. It needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. City Harvest makes an incredible difference.”

City Harvest London needs help now more than ever. Only through more donations can we hope to meet this ever growing need for nutritious food as the cost of living crisis unfolds throughout winter and beyond. Only together we can support the most vulnerable in our communities. 

But let’s leave the final word to Hodo, whose school has transformed itself into a community hub working tirelessly for the benefit of its pupils and their families.

“I always have this quote which I say to parents and staff,” she reveals. “And it’s about how we work together. ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ And it really does. I live by that quote.”