By: Stephanie Denning, ESRC-funded PhD researcher at the University of Bristol

The latest 2017 Feeding Britain report, Ending Hunger in the Holidays, found that over 3 million children in the UK are at risk of holiday hunger. 1.2 million children are at risk of hunger when they do not receive a free school meal in the school holidays, and a further 2 million children are at risk as they are experiencing in work poverty. Research has shown that Holiday hunger can affect adults too: a Kelloggs study in 2015 found that one third of parents in Great Britain had skipped a meal in the holidays so that their children could eat. 

Research has shown that Holiday hunger can affect adults too: a Kelloggs study in 2015 found that one third of parents in Great Britain had skipped a meal in the holidays so that their children could eat. 

The 2015 Feeding Britain report cited research that has found that children who did not eat enough nutritionally balanced food during the school summer holidays not only experience serious effects on their physical health, but also have poorer educational attainment when they return to school when compared with their wealthier peers. It is therefore vital that we respond to holiday hunger. 

The voluntary sector has been one of the main respondents to UK food poverty. My research contributed to the 2017 Feeding Britain report with evidence of the importance of volunteers in responding to holiday hunger. The research sought to understand how Christian faith can motivate people to respond to holiday hunger, and how people persist in volunteering. It contributes to understanding that faith groups and volunteers are playing a crucial role in responding to food poverty by running food banks and children’s holiday groups, through to collecting evidence and campaigning for change.

For the duration of my research I worked with the charity TLG MakeLunch as I established and ran a Lunch Kitchen in an area where deprivation is in the top 5% of the UK. TLG MakeLunch is a network of churches and community groups running Lunch Kitchens to fill the holiday hunger gap by providing the equivalent of a free school meal in the school holidays. Since July 2011 its network has cooked and served over 65,000 meals in more than 100 locations across England, Scotland and Wales. As with most MakeLunch Kitchens, the project that I established relied upon volunteers to run. My research engaged with the volunteers to explore their motivations to volunteer, and their experiences of being at the Lunch Kitchen. I chose to research the response to holiday hunger from a faith perspective because faith groups are crucial in responding to holiday hunger, and being Christian myself meant that I could also analyse my own experiences in this context. I ran the project for 15  months before handing it over to others, and it continues to run successfully today.

What motivated people to volunteer at the Lunch Kitchen?

I see it [volunteering at the project] as a way of serving and offering something to my neighbour… so it is a way of living out what I believe.

People’s motivations to volunteer ranged from Biblical teachings on responding to hunger, through to anger at political reform and the desire to do something active and meaningful in response. Often volunteers were motivated by a range of these factors and understood volunteering as a way of acting out their Christian faith. For example, one volunteer said:

“I see it [volunteering at the project] as a way of serving and offering something to my neighbour… so it is a way of living out what I believe.”

When a person is motivated by their faith to volunteer, the experience can have more meaning to the volunteer than is immediately recognised. For example, for the volunteer quoted above, her Christian faith meant that she was not simply giving food, but also acting out her faith. These motivations were important, but there was also hope from the volunteers that it would be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

Why did people keep on volunteering? 

Religious faith was a key motivation for people to volunteer, but people’s motivations to continue were also affected by their volunteering experiences. Motivations must be continually renewed if they are to keep on volunteering, as it is not guaranteed that a person will persist in volunteering. Volunteering can therefore be understood as a continual process of action and reflection. How people’s motivations and expectations compared to their actual experiences of volunteering were important for whether they would continue volunteering. A faith motivation does not make volunteers immune to being challenged by their experiences, and so a sense of enjoyment, satisfaction and feeling of appreciation are important for a person to want to continue volunteering.

Volunteering can therefore be understood as a continual process of action and reflection. How people’s motivations and expectations compared to their actual experiences of volunteering were important for whether they would continue volunteering.

My research also highlighted that in volunteering, the volunteers themselves are also affected, and not just the children at the project who might traditionally be considered the ‘recipient’. For example, volunteers shared that they enjoyed the experience of volunteering, developed new relationships with other volunteers and the children, and learnt more about food poverty. How volunteers are affected can be positive and negative, change over time, and can have a lasting impact on the volunteer and their perception of the project. 

It is important to emphasise the benefit gained by volunteers in addition to those attending the projects, so that barriers of giver and receiver are broken down. This was particularly true of people coming to volunteer from different backgrounds as over time the group of volunteers became a team, and whether someone was from the local area or not became less important. One volunteer reflected on her experience of eating with the children attending the project:

“Great to see the children developing – one used a knife and fork for the first time to cut up her own dinner, another tried something new, and another helped bring the dirty plates back into the kitchen. It felt like family life rather than an institution, and that makes all the difference, I think.”

Her reflection shows how in eating together, and being ‘like a family’, ideas of giver and receiver were broken down, as both the volunteers and people attending the Lunch clubs began to feel like a family.

Her reflection shows how in eating together, and being ‘like a family’, ideas of giver and receiver were broken down, as both the volunteers and people attending the Lunch clubs began to feel like a family. Therefore, whilst the project primarily aimed to respond to holiday hunger, there were also clear benefits for the volunteers and for the entire community as people came together to cook, play, and eat. Ultimately, breaking down barriers between giver and receiver in food aid projects is crucial for reducing the stigma around people who are experiencing food poverty, and to encourage the development of more inclusive and sustainable community initiatives where people work together to respond to holiday hunger.

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Images drawn by Beth Waters, Bristol based illustrator 

For more on Stephanie's research around what organisations can do to retain volunteers please follow this link

You can also follow Stephanie on Twitter at @SJ_Denning, or email [email protected]

Stephanie is also a member of Feeding Bristol, a Feeding Britain pilot. To find out more about their work and how you can support them please visit their page here