Skip navigation

Addressing food poverty in children and families

Millions of children in the UK who rely on free school meals are at risk of hunger during school holidays. Northumbria University has conducted extensive, nationwide research into both food insecurity during school holidays, as well as potential interventions to combat hunger, such as holiday clubs. The research has had a major impact on local and national policy initiatives, industry and charity activities and public understanding and awareness.

Families on low household incomes, many of whom rely on free school meals during term time, often struggle to put food on the table during the school holidays. Replacing these meals costs a family of four an extra £30-40 a week and parents unable to afford the additional costs will regularly skip meals and buy processed foods that are cheaper than healthier options. This has led to a rise in the number of families accessing food banks during the school holidays, a clear sign that holiday hunger is a serious issue in the UK. The consequences of food insecurity are significant – research has shown a clear link between food insecurity and mental, physical and academic development and a child’s overall life chances.


Professor Greta Defeyter, Director of the Healthy Living Lab at Northumbria University and Dr Pamela Graham were some of the first researchers in the UK to investigate the impact of food insecurity on vulnerable families and children during the school holidays. The Lab was the first to map free holiday provision across the UK across two consecutive years and found a significant need and increase for school holiday clubs. This research has been cited by the English, Scottish, Northern Ireland and Welsh Governments to illustrate the need and effectiveness of clubs in terms of reducing food insecurity, social isolation and financial hardship. An early pilot in 2015, led the Welsh Government to provide funding for Food and Fun, a school holiday enrichment programme.


The Lab’s research findings have made a significant impact on local and national policy. In 2017, Professor Defeyter’s research on UK mapping of holiday hunger fed into the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hunger’s White Paper on holiday hunger. In 2018, Professor Defeyter contributed oral and written evidence to the APPG on Hunger, which resulted in the adoption of holiday clubs as a national solution. That year, the Minister for Children and Families agreed to fund £2 million of pilots to assess how best to ensure more children from disadvantaged families benefit from heathy meals and enrichment activities during the holidays. The Department of Education recently announced £9M of funding for a Holiday Activity and Food programme for 2019.


The research findings have made an important contribution at the societal level, enabling Professor Defeyter to co-author the ‘Filling the holiday gap’ online guidance document for UK organisations providing meals to children during the holiday. The work has also made a considerable contribution to raising awareness of food insecurity in low-income families.


In recognition of her work on food poverty, Professor Defeyter received a Children's Food Heroes Award from Sustain in 2017. She was also appointed a Trustee for Feeding Britain, a nationwide charity initiative, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, to alleviate and eliminate hunger. The Healthy Living Lab continues its research into food poverty and the impact of holiday provision at the individual, family, community and societal level.

Experts at Northumbria University to speak to MP inquiry about holiday hunger from Northumbria University on Vimeo.

Social Work, Education & Community Wellbeing

Here at Northumbria we are at the forefront of high quality professional education, innovation and research. In this discipline we cover social work, social care, education, lifelong learning, public health and community welbeing.

Greta Defeyter

Greta Defeytrer is a Professor of Enterprise within the Department of Social Work, Education and Community Wellbeing. 

More events

Upcoming events

DynaSun 2024
TaPRA Conference 2024

Back to top