Sara Bryson is the Community Organiser for Tyne & Wear Citizens, a local chapter of Citizens UK.  Sara was previously Policy & Research Manager at Children North East and developed the Poverty Proofing the School Day programme of work.

We asked Sara to share her thoughts around the launch of The Just Change Campaign this week, calling for an equal treatment principle that pupils with free school meals should be entitled to the change from lunch money just like other students to avoid hunger and stigma, as well as a written commitment for action from catering providers and ring-fenced funding from central Government for free school meals to ensure all the money earmarked for free school meals children is spent on them.

With child poverty levels reaching record highs, inequality widening rather than closing, and social mobility stagnating, it’s easy to simply despair. To be so overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, it’s hard to know where to start.

But start somewhere, we must!

The reality for many children and young people, specifically in our region, is simply too urgent to ignore.  I know first-hand, what a weight poverty is to carry around as a child.  What it feels like to be hungry, for families to have to make decisions between heating and eating.  Food is often one of the first things you cut back on; missing the rent or mortgage can result in eviction or missing utility bills can mean energy sources get cut off.  So, food is the first to take a hit in households struggling to make the money last until the end of the month.

It was my own experience of growing up in poverty that has led me to spend my working life trying to eradicate poverty and find solutions to these problems.  It’s personal. 

Lightbulb moment

Just Change School Meals Campaign

The Just Change Campaign, which launched this week, was sparked by a conversation I had with Year 10 pupils at Park View School in Durham.  We were comparing experiences of being on Free School Meals.  Back when I was young, we had to queue for our school token, by the time I got to the counter all the good food was gone.  So, I used to sell my ticket and save the money. 

One year 10 pupil Jess piped up:

 You know what would make a difference to me? If I could have my change from my dinner money?

When I asked what she meant by that, she then explained, “Well, if I’m off school on a Monday, I still have £2.10 on a Tuesday.  Where does Monday’s £2.10 go?”

Just Change Campaign

Listening before we act

The whole group of pupils agreed and went on to discuss how those who pay for school dinners, have a credit balance that rolls forward.  However, those on Free School Meals didn’t.  It was yet another example of how young people are treated differently based on nothing more than family household income.  Jess and the group went further, to say that if they too could roll forward a credit balance, they could afford a breakfast and lunch the next day.  Or they could save their allowance for extra food for when they had PE or an exam.

It was this conversation amongst pupils at Park View where the Just Change campaign began.  A clear example that listening before we act is so crucial.  We can’t presume we know what’s best.  I had experienced poverty as a child, but the world is a very different place now.  Children and young people in receipt of Free School Meals not only know and understand the flaws in the system, but they know how to fix it too.

After some investigations by the school, we were shocked at the results.  We discovered that the change was retained by the provider of the school meals.  Because of the fragmented nature of the school system in the UK, the provider varies between being the school itself, the local authority or a private provider.  In all cases, the money was not going where it was intended, to feed our poorest children.  Across secondary schools we estimate that this is £65 million stolen from children on Free School Meals.  It’s a scandal.

Just Change School Meals Campaign

Making it happen

We knew the problem and we knew how to fix it.  Parity of treatment.  Treat those on Free School Meals the same as their peers.  Allow any unused or unspent monies to be carried forward and give pupils the full academic year to spend it.  It’s not about giving pupils cash; it’s a cashless credit balance, that can only be spent on food or drinks.  Simple.

But did we have the power to make it happen?

On our own, as one school, no we didn’t.  Broad based community organising consciously builds the power of civil society to act for social justice and win.  Tyne & Wear Citizens is a broad alliance of faith groups, schools, universities, charities (including Children North East) and community groups, who together agreed to prioritise the Just Change Campaign.  Together we began to gain some traction.

Carmel College, Darlington

Carmel College in Darlington

The first step forward came from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.  As a strategic partner of Tyne & Wear Citizens, they agreed to act.  Carmel College in Darlington, who were the providers of their own meals, agreed to be the first to remodel and operate a Just Change system. At Carmel College, it cost no more than £250 to change the I.T system and they estimate that they’ve returned over £17,000 back to the poorest pupils in one year. They have proven it is possible and should be applauded for leading the way.

Leaders within Tyne & Wear Citizens, including school students, have since negotiated with other schools and local authorities to follow suit.  We have now launched the campaign nationally, with Citizens UK chapters across the country getting involved.  We aim to have all secondary schools up and down the country operating a Just Change system and to get that £65 million back where it’s needed most - feeding hungry children.

So, change is possible.  We can tackle poverty at its root.  When we listen, organise and act for change together.  We have the power to win.

Join us and get involved… then we will work on tackling the next slice.

Just Change School Meals Campaign

What can you do?

Read and share the full report 

Ask what happens in your child’s school?  If you’re a school governor, what happens in your school?

Listen to the young people involved in the campaign & share their stories

Get involved in the campaign

Join Just Change

Read and share the press coverage

Find out more about Tyne & Wear Citizens