‘They don’t have enough’ – schools in England are running food banks for families

The peak of the cost-of-living crisis may have passed, but millions of families are struggling to buy enough food to feed their children. Experiencing food insecurity can be deeply damaging for children and negatively affects their achievement at school.

My research, alongside other studies, shows that schools are operating their own food banks and providing charitable food aid to families. This shows how the education system – from early years to secondary schools – is increasingly at the front line in responding to child poverty, food insecurity, and destitution.

At the start of the financial crisis in 2008 there were few food banks in the UK. Now they are in towns and cities across the country. In 2010-11, charity the Trussell Trust operated 35 food bank centres. Now, the charity runs over 1400.

Recent research from the charity the Food Foundation estimates that one in five families with children do not have secure access to food.

After almost a decade and a half of Conservative governments, a significant number of schools are running food banks to support families and children.

I interviewed school staff at 25 schools across England, in towns and cities including Bristol, Liverpool and London. I wanted to understand how and why schools are providing charitable food to families.

The message was clear: schools were running food banks because they were faced with growing poverty and families struggling financially. Parents can’t afford to buy food or pay bills, and turn to schools for help. As one staff member I spoke to said:

They don’t have enough food, they don’t eat typically well because they can’t afford it, and that’s no fault of their own.

Teachers talked about the cost of living crisis and changes to the UK’s benefit system – in particular the replacement of a number of previous benefit allowances with universal credit – as reasons the food banks were necessary. Research has suggested that the switch to universal credit is leaving some families worse off. “It’s less than what they’re on before. And we have that period where you swap [systems] where you haven’t got any money,” one teacher said.

Child receiving school lunch
Some of the children whose families used school food banks did not qualify for free school meals. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Some of the families supported by school food banks did not qualify for free school meals for their children but were still struggling. Commenting on who made use of the foodbank, one teacher said:

Sometimes it’s the ones who have free school meals and sometimes it’s the next lot up that are working families and just have absolutely no money at all and no-one to support them or help them with that because they just miss it.

The growth of food banks in schools shows how schools are often acting as an emergency service. “The government has dismantled public services over the past decade and schools are the last people standing,” Ann Longfield, former children’s commissioner for England, has recently commented.

A growing problem

The latest research I am working on with colleagues throws the situation facing families and schools into even starker relief. We are currently investigating how many school-based food banks there are in England and the sorts of schools they are located in.

Our new research, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, suggests that 21% of primary and secondary schools operate some kind of food bank. We estimate that this amounts to over 4,000 school-based food banks across England.

This would mean that there are now more food banks inside schools than the combined total of food banks operated by charities the Trussell Trust – the UK’s largest food bank operator – and the Independent Food Aid Network.

If schools are now systematically supporting families through charitable food aid, they need guidance, support and funding. Families need well-paid and secure work and a social security system that provides people with both dignity and the financial means to buy essentials, which includes being able to buy food and clothes and heat their homes.

It’s worth remembering that the goal of a well-functioning welfare state should be to prevent poverty and destitution in the first place rather than provide relief for them after the fact.

Plans to dramatically reduce child poverty, food insecurity and inequality must be central to all political parties’ election manifestos.

This blog is written by Dr Will Baker, Senior Lecturer, School of Education, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Our laser technique can tell apart elephant and mammoth ivory – here’s how it may disrupt the ivory trade

In recent years, the global trade in elephant ivory has faced significant restrictions in an effort to protect dwindling elephant populations. Many countries have stringent controls on the trade of elephant ivory. The sale of mammoth ivory, sourced primarily from long-extinct species, however, remains unregulated.

But it’s a significant challenge for customs and law enforcement agencies to distinguish between ivory from extinct mammoths and living elephants. This is a process that is both time-consuming and requires destroying the ivory.

Now our new study, published in PLOS ONE, presents a major breakthrough – using a well known laser technique to tell mammoth and elephant ivory apart.

Our results couldn’t come soon enough. The number of African elephants has dramatically declined from approximately 12 million a century ago to about 400,000 today.

Annually, over 20,000 elephants are poached for ivory, primarily in Africa. This decline not only disrupts ecological balance, but also diminishes biodiversity. Ultimately, it highlights the urgent need for conservation efforts to protect these species.

The hunt for mammoth ivory is also a problem. The new regulations are leading to a rise in the modern-day “mammoth hunter”. These are people who deliberately set out to excavate mammoth remains from the Siberian permafrost in the summer months.

Driven by the lucrative market for mammoth ivory, these hunters undertake expeditions in remote Arctic regions, where permafrost melting is accelerated by climate change. This has made previously inaccessible mammoth tusks more reachable.

Mammoth fossils being unearthed.
Mammoth fossils being unearthed. Malachi Jacobs/Shutterstock

This activity not only has commercial implications. It also raises significant ethical and environmental concerns. That’s because it disturbs preserved ecosystems and involves the extraction of resources that have great value to paleontological science.

Laser insights

Our study from the University of Bristol, in collaboration with Lancaster University and the Natural History Museum, introduces a potential game-changer. We use a non-invasive laser technique known as Raman spectroscopy to identify the origin of a piece of ivory.

The method works by analysing the biochemical makeup of the ivory, which consists primarily of mineralised tissue composed of collagen (the flexible organic component) and hydroxyapatite (a hard inorganic mineral, containing calcium).

Raman spectroscopy is a well established technique. It has previously demonstrated applications that range from identifying whisky, studying archeological human bones from the Mary Rose ship, understanding how turkey tendons develop and to even identifying the purity of meat sold by the food industry.

The technique works by directing a laser light onto the ivory sample. The energy from the light is temporarily absorbed by the bonds between molecules in the sample, and then almost instantly re-released. This released light scatters back with more or less energy than the initial laser light sent to the sample.

This carries information about the molecular vibrations within the material – providing a unique pattern of light for each type of ivory. The analysis involves studying the differences between these unique fingerprints.

Our study analysed elephant and mammoth samples provided by the Natural History Museum, London. It demonstrated that not only could the technique distinguish between mammoth and elephant ivory, it could also spot differences in ivory from living elephant species.

In fact, we successfully differentiated between ivory from the extinct woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and two species of elephants still walking the Earth today (Loxodonta and Elephas maximus).

Important implications

This method offers several advantages over traditional techniques for ivory analysis. Raman spectroscopy is non-destructive and can be performed quickly. This makes it an ideal tool for customs officials who need to make rapid decisions. Our study was conducted on a benchtop spectrometer (a device which breaks up light by wavelength) within a laboratory. But research suggests cheaper and portable, handheld Raman spectrometers could offer equivalent results.

Further research will be needed to refine the technique and expand the database of ivory signatures. We are working with Worldwide Wildlife Hong Kong and the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office to develop this technique.

More data will ultimately enhance the accuracy of species identification. It could potentially help us detect even finer distinctions – such as the age of the ivory or specific environmental conditions where the elephants or mammoths lived.

There are also other non-destructive techniques, such as X-Ray fluorescence spectroscopy, which could be used as a complementary method to identify the geographical region from which the ivory was taken.

As this technique becomes more accessible and widely adopted, it may become key in global conservation efforts, helping to prevent the illegal trade of elephant ivory.

This article was written by Dr Rebecca Shepherd, Senior Lecturer in Anatomy, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.