by Stephanie Denning
19th February 2020

It’s half term in many areas of the UK and many families will be experiencing holiday hunger. Stephanie Denning, author of ‘Voluntary sector responses to food poverty: responding in the short term and working for longer-term change’ published in Voluntary Sector Review, explains how the voluntary sector has played a key role in responding to food poverty. Looking forward, she shows how its responses can help with people’s immediate need and also support longer-term change.

More than one in five people in the UK are experiencing poverty (around 14 million people according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation) and this is just one aspect of poverty. Food poverty in the UK has reached unprecedented levels. It’s not just about the amount of food that someone eats, but also about how nutritional food is, how affordable it is, and how accessible good food is.

If a response to food poverty is going to change levels of food poverty in the longer-term then it needs to engage with the causes of poverty. These are complex, but research across academia and the voluntary sector consistently shows that the current levels of UK food poverty are related to changes in the welfare state (for example see the State of Hunger report).

Holiday hunger case study: reflections on being relational, encouraging participation, and working for justice

In 2015 as part of ESRC funded research at the University of Bristol I ran a holiday hunger project – ‘Lunch’ – through the national charity TLG in a church in a highly deprived UK inner city area. Holiday hunger is when children do not have enough to eat in the school holidays, partly due to the lack of free school meals outside of term time. There are over three million children at risk of holiday hunger in the UK (Feeding Britain, 2017). Lunch gave a free hot and healthy meal to local primary school aged children and relied upon volunteers to run.  Sustainability beyond the research period was important, and so, from the start, I gained funding for the project for 2-3 years, and in 2016 I handed over the running of ‘Lunch’ to others in the community.

Reflecting on the principles of being relational, encouraging participation, and working for justice (from Ingredients for Action) can help facilitate voluntary sector responses that respond to people’s need in the short-term, but also work for longer-term change.

Being relational

At Lunch, being relational was a means through which barriers between children and volunteers at Lunch could be broken down through playing and eating together:

In food we share our fundamental dependency on the earth and on each other so it’s hugely relational (Lunch volunteer, July 2015)

Lunch was established in response to identifying need in the community, and the church that hosted Lunch aimed to work with the local community rather than ‘doing to’ the community.

Encouraging participation

Being relational fed into encouraging participation at Lunch. Lunch was based in a church in a local community and it also drew on volunteers from outside the local area. This meant that people from a wide variety of ages, occupations and backgrounds came together to volunteer. Within appropriate safeguarding policies, I endeavoured to welcome anyone who wanted to volunteer.

I was deeply moved at the training meeting at the arrival of two ladies each over eighty. (Lunch volunteer, August 2015)

Partly in response to volunteers’ reflections and Lunch’s Christian ethos, we changed how we served food at Lunch to involve the children more and encourage participation:

At the moment it feels quite transactional rather than relational. But being part of this project shouldn’t just be about what ‘we’ can give to ‘them’ but also about what we gain from being in the presence of the poor, in their closeness to God. (Lunch volunteer, July 2015)

At Lunch we therefore aimed to break down the idea of there being a ‘giver’ and a ‘receiver’ for volunteers and children to participate together.

Working for justice

The principle of working for justice engages most directly with the causes of food poverty.  As Lunch ran through TLG, we took part in their national advocacy through submitting statistics on the numbers of meals served at Lunch, and provided evidence to Feeding Britain for their Hungry Holidays report and MP Frank Field’s Meals and Activities Bill in January 2018.  At a local level at Lunch, working towards justice emphasised the need to break down potential stigma of poverty by inviting all local children to attend rather than having specific eligibility criteria, and in challenging people’s perceptions of poverty; volunteers’ reflections on their experiences can be important in addressing public attitudes and stigma towards people experiencing poverty in the UK.

Recommendations for voluntary sector organisations

The reflections on Lunch show that it is possible for a voluntary sector response to be in the short-term and work towards longer-term change that addresses the causes of food poverty.  This is not without challenges, but here are three recommendations for voluntary sector organisations aspiring for short and longer-term change in practice:

  1. Gather evidence and collect data on how your organisation is responding to need in the short-term, and submit this through appropriate channels (for example APPGs) to government for evidence of the need for longer-term change.
  2. Develop an organisational strategy for where the organisation sees itself in five and ten years: do you still want to be functioning? If not, what could be done to meet this goal? To work towards longer-term change it is important that the short-term response does not dominate and become all-consuming.
  3. Reflect on the principles of being relational, encouraging participation and working for justice in your organisational setting. Providing space at an away-day or through volunteers’ diary writing is a way to learn more about people’s perceptions at the grassroots of an organisation which can be fed into the organisational strategy.

Continual reflection on these recommendations can help to balance short and longer-term responses because both will then become integral to how voluntary sector organisations respond to food poverty, rather than a longer-term response becoming an add in.


Voluntary sector responses to food poverty: responding in the short term and working for longer-term change by Stephanie Denning is published in Voluntary Sector Review by Policy Press.

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