University of York: University of York researchers present evidence to MPs on Government’s Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) Programme

The HAF programme provides free healthy meals and activities to children eligible for Free School Meals (FSMs) during the school holidays. This year, the programme was expanded across England to support children during school closure time, particularly those from low-income families.

Researchers submitted their findings to parliamentarians to demonstrate the effectiveness of the programme, funding for which was extended in last month’s budget.

The school holidays are a known pressure point for families with increased costs in food and childcare and reduced incomes. There is also concern that disruption to learning over the summer holidays disproportionately impacts children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Evaluation

Ahead of the Autumn Comprehensive Spending Review, the researchers undertook an evaluation of the scheme’s implementation and impact. They focussed on the scheme’s delivery in the summer holidays of 2021, across four local authorities in the Yorkshire and the Humber region (in York, North Lincolnshire, Bradford, and Sheffield).

Last month, they presented their research findings to the Department of Education and key parliamentarians on the impact of HAF provision over the summer. The Chancellor’s autumn budget confirmed a funding commitment that aligned with the recommendations set out in the research to extend provision of the HAF programme for the next three years.

The findings are part of a newly launched five-year research programme called ‘Transformations to Regenerative Food Systems (TReFS)’ – also known as the FixOurFood research programme – in partnership with The Food Foundation.

Recommendations

The team gathered data to provide a robust set of recommendations, including:

The Government should commit to long-term funding of HAF to enable local authorities to plan and build on this year’s learnings, with ongoing evaluation to ensure the scheme is fit for purpose.
That places on the programme should be available to all children, not just those with Free School Meal status, to reduce stigma and to allow a wider group of children to benefit.
The continued provision of tasty and varied meals should remain an important part of the HAF programme.

The report also found that:

The meals served had a positive impact on food insecurity and provided children with a more varied, healthier diet than if not attending the clubs.
The benefits of attending the holiday clubs were felt both by children and their wider families. Children enjoyed the opportunity to socialise and learn new skills and some were reported to be better-behaved at home as a result. With their children attending the clubs, parents were able to work. Parents also benefited from opportunities to socialise within their local community.
Local authorities stepped up to the challenge of the short turnaround time between the confirmed funding and provision delivery. Despite the time pressure, they delivered well-rounded programmes and established a strong foundation for delivery of future provision.

Vital lifeline

Dr Maria Bryant, Reader in Public Health Nutrition from the Department of Health Sciences, who led the research, said: “Given this is the first year of the expanded scheme, we have worked with partners in the Food Foundation to evaluate the scheme over the summer holidays of 2021. The team spent the summer volunteering in activities across the region where they had the opportunity to collect observational data, conduct interviews and focus groups, and gather data on attendance.

“The report has now been widely shared, and summarises our preliminary findings and our key recommendations, which will support decision making in advance of the end of year comprehensive spending review.”

Zoe McIntyre, Children’s Right2Food Project Lead at The Food Foundation, said: “The research undertaken by Fix our Food this summer provided timely and robust evidence to policymakers that the provision of holiday clubs through the programme has provided a vital lifeline during the financially challenging school holiday periods for many families this year, supporting children’s wellbeing, social inclusion and access to healthy food. The announcement in this week’s Budget that the Holiday Activities and Food Programme will continue to be funded for the next three years shows that the Government has listened to this evidence and recognises the importance of providing disadvantaged children with nutritious food during the school holidays.”

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