A new survey by Family Fund has found that 79% of parents and carers in Northern Ireland have struggled to afford healthy food for their disabled or seriously ill children in the last year, with almost half (46%) reporting missing a meal in order to feed their children instead.

The survey highlighted the eight-week school summer holiday period as a pinch point for low-income families, the majority of whom (70%) reported receiving free school meals during term time.

Parents/carers cited a number of reasons for this, primarily around the cost of healthy food options on a budget, especially if a child had special dietary and/or sensory needs and/or food intolerances.

Respondents to the survey reported seeking cheaper but less healthy/filling food, often linked to tiredness and the time needed for other caring responsibilities.

The findings have been shared with the All Party Group on Children and Young People as part of Children in Northern Ireland’s work to help develop policy recommendations to prevent holiday hunger.

"Extremely worrying"

Steven Agnew MLA, Chair of the All Party Assembly Group on Children and Young People said: "It's extremely worrying that families and parents are struggling to afford healthy meals during school summer holidays.

"It's even more disturbing that many of these families include a child with a disability - for these children a nutritious and balanced diet is critical to overall health and wellbeing.

"We need to protect the most vulnerable in society and provide extra support for those that may need it from time to time in their lives. The devolved institutions must be restored so that we can finally implement the Child Poverty Strategy."

Ross McCrea, Partnership Manager in Northern Ireland for Family Fund, said: “This survey suggests that food poverty, especially during the summer break, is now a significant issue for many families on low incomes raising disabled or seriously ill children in Northern Ireland.

“As well as missing out on free school meals, often for more than one child, many parents also have to cover the cost of childcare over the summer or take unpaid time off work to look after their children.  

“We know that raising a disabled child costs around three times more than raising a child with no additional needs.

“When you add to this the increased cost of meeting complex dietary needs which many disabled or seriously ill children have, you begin to understand why almost half the parents who responded are missing meals in order to feed their children, and why the summer holidays pose a threat to families’ health and wellbeing.

“We hope this survey, along with other evidence, gives rise to meaningful policy responses on Holiday Hunger to better support families on low incomes raising disabled children.”

Chele's story

Chele is a working mother of five in Belfast whose eldest child has ADHD with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and an eating disorder. Chele’s family have been affected by holiday hunger.

"The summer holidays put us under considerable financial strain, because we’ve got to feed five children who usually have free school meals and find activities for them to do.

"In the winter we prepare full fresh meals, casseroles, pots of stews, but over the summer we just can’t afford to, so they have to eat lower quality food like pizza and frozen chips because it’s cheap. At times this summer, there wasn’t enough to go around, so I had a bowl of cereal in place of a meal for dinner so the children didn’t go without. 

"We receive Disability Living Allowance and Carer’s Allowance, but money is still very tight.

"Dylan has complex issues with food, so even though he’s a large child who is definitely well fed, he might take extra food from the cupboards and hide it for eating. Due to his condition, he will take food that’s unsuitable, such as raw meat, and try and eat it, which means it gets wasted. We’ll take the shopping to our bedroom at night to stop him doing this, or shop every day for fresh food- but that can be more expensive.

"You make the best of things whatever your children’s needs are, but the summer holidays are a lot harder for families raising disabled children than people might realise.”

Read the report now