Tej Kohli is the founder of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation whose ‘Rebuilding You’ philosophy supports the development of scientific and technological solutions to major global health challenges whilst also making interventions to rebuild people and communities around the world. Tej Kohli is also an impact investor who backs growth-stage artificial intelligence and robotics ventures through the Kohli Ventures investment vehicle.
What will our post Coronavirus future look like? Many of us are postulating what future will follow the human tragedy of the last months. But it is erroneous to postulate any answer without first pausing to check that we are actually asking the right question. That question is not whether things will ever be the same again, but should they be? History will not judge our generation by the way that we responded to Coronavirus, but by how and what we are able to rebuild once that the virus has dissipated.
An Optimistic Future?
There are many issues lying beneath the fabric of our society which the lockdown has brought to the surface and exposed. Not all are negative. Scientists have emerged as the silent heroes of our age. Their coordinated efforts to develop a vaccine have shown how we can work together to overcome major human challenges and to spread the benefits of new technological and scientific innovations. I have played my small part by donating $100,000 to the development of a genetic vaccine.
It has also been overwhelming how communities have embraced the importance of sharing and kindness and ‘doing their bit’. To support these local community actions I have made a substantial donation to The Salvation Army in London to feed 300 under privileged children and their families throughout lockdown and during the two years that will follow. My Foundation has also devised a way to ‘repackage’ how young people accept help from charities, and from next week we will be deploying our ‘YouCube’ concept to feed a further 300 families in the UK.
But for all the goodness in our collective response, the Coronavirus has also exposed the many ways in which we were failing as a society. The lockdown has revealed how many young people are living their lives on the constant precipice of hunger. Great Britain could well be regarded as one of the kindest and most enlightened in the world. Yet many parents in the UK routinely experience difficulties in feeding their children. Coronavirus has simply made it more visible than it was before.
For many families in the UK time together is a blessing, and school holidays in particular are a time for relaxing together and maybe even taking a trip. But for others, school holidays are a time of anxiety, particularly for parents who struggle to feed their children. During term time these families rely on their children receiving free school meals (FSM). But a lack of food at home outside of term time, when free school meals are not available, leads to holiday hunger. And with schools now closed for lockdown and children stuck at home, the ‘holiday hunger’ problem is more pervasive than ever.
1.2 Million Children
In 2018 there were over 1.2 million children in England who were left without FSM during the school holidays. This figure encapsulates schools controlled by local authorities. 450,000 pupils who are in receipt of FSM are not under local authorities. London pupils represent just under 19% of all UK students who are eligible for FSM.
To be eligible for FSM, parents have to be enrolled in one of the UK’s benefit schemes. However the process is not the same throughout the UK: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different criteria, which makes it a difficult system to navigate, especially after recent changes. The governmental website that enables families to apply for free school meals seems dauntingly complex within just a few short paragraphs.
During the summer holidays in 2019, the UK government launched an initiative to provide funding for several projects to provide free meals and activities for vulnerable children. According to The Guardian, 88% of bids were rejected, with just under a third of the bids coming from the most deprived areas in England.
Government or Communities?
In January 2020 the UK Department of Education stated that the government was investing £9 million for 50,000 disadvantaged children to have access to free activities and free meals during the 2020 summer holidays. But before Coronavirus it was estimated that the number of children living in food-insecure households during the 2020 summer holidays would exceed 3 million. The economic fallout of coronavirus might increase this number even further and moreover, the initiative does not apply to the remaining 7 weeks of school holiday that occur during the normal school year. There is no governmental legislation that requires local councils to provide free meals to students during the summer holidays, meaning that only councils who choose to support the program can help vulnerable children.
Thankfully Coronavirus has motivated local communities to step in and fill this void. All across the United Kingdom, local communities have come together to create COVID-19 ‘emergency response’ kitchens and initiatives to deliver cooked food or weekly boxes of essential foods and ingredients to the most vulnerable in their local community. And these schemes are increasingly now turning to families with children who are also struggling.
The challenge for these grassroots community organisations is one of sustainability beyond COVID-19. Many of the grassroots organisations rely on the goodwill of local food suppliers and volunteers to pack and deliver food, many of whose lives will ‘return to normal’ once that Coronavirus recedes and their places of work re-open. Many have based themselves in the kitchens of hotels or restaurants that will hope to soon reopen as commercial premises. Volunteered delivery vans and drivers may soon have to return to work too.
But even when Coronavirus recedes, holiday hunger will persist unless we do more to tackle it. In Hounslow, my Foundation has committed to fund a doubling of what the local Salvation Army is currently spending per head on the delivery of weekly food parcels to families whose children would usually be receiving free school meals. We have also committed to continue to fund food parcels for the same 300 families during every school holiday for the next two years. This funding will alleviate these families from the constant burden of worry, which will help them to flourish and do better.
Similarly in another part of outer London where deprivation is widespread, the Tej Kohli Foundation is providing seed funding to an existing grassroots community project to use their existing local volunteers and deep reach into their local community to feed 300 local families with children during the lockdown with our novel ‘YouCube’ concept. If the trial proves successful, we’ll commit funding to feed these families during school holidays too.
Importantly, these local grassroots organisations squeeze multiples of value from every pound of funding received, and so I believe that the answer to the sustainability problem lies in empowering these local volunteers by giving them enough visible and substantial funding to be able to plan ahead.
This is not a solution that I postulate lightly. If our projects with the Salvation Army and other community projects in London go well, then the Tej Kohli Foundation hopes to expand these initiatives to support local grassroots initiatives in other areas of the UK too. Fifteen years ago, the Foundation opened its ‘FundaKohli’ free canteens in Costa Rica to provide after-school meals to children in underserved communities. In the years since, FundaKohli has served hundreds of thousands of meals, and we have experienced first-hand the huge impact that a seemingly small intervention such as making sure a child can reliably fill their stomach every day without worry, can have.
Children who do not have consistent access to food and nutrition often suffer from an education slump. Holiday hunger can result in mental and physical health problems. The physical affects can include a lack of energy, lower immunity and poor growth; as well as an increased risk of Type II diabetes and cancer. Social, emotional and behavioural effects from a lack of consistent nutrition include frustration, anxiety, lack of social engagement; whilst malnourished children are also less able to focus and learn
Holiday hunger becomes visible at food banks each summer as families lose their access to FSM for their children. In 2018 The Trussell Trust urged families to donate more food to their local food bank as new figures showed that over 87,000 food parcels were sent out to children during the summer holidays, which was a 20% increase compared to the same holiday period in 2017. Although many food banks are supporting the eligible children for FSM during school holiday, this cannot be allowed to become a ‘normalised’ form of support. To compel young people to becoming generic and ‘helpless’ recipients of food bank charity is a very quick way to quash their hopes and aspirations before their life has even started. Moreover many food banks have been forced to shut due to their lack of resources.
Because 1.3 million children are at risk of going hungry without the provision of FSM during the Coronavirus lockdown, the UK Government has issued food vouchers worth £15 a week to families whose children normally receive FSM. The vouchers can be used in 8 of the supermarket chains in England, but families have faced problems when redeeming them at supermarket checkouts. Families have also experiencing feelings of shame and disappointment after waiting for weeks to use their vouchers, and this could lead to even more uncertainty and anxiety at such a difficult time.
Ending Holiday Hunger
There is no ‘holiday hunger’ policy for the UK which would ensure that all local authorities provide free meals and activities for underprivileged children. Moreover, there is a lack of consistent communication and coordination between schools and local organisations. But the good news is that schools have an excellent understanding of their pupils and are well-placed to be able to identify the best ways to deliver help to those in need.
And the COVID-19 response of local communities in creating grassroots movements to support those in need gives many reasons to be optimistic too. No single organisation will be able to eliminate holiday hunger alone, but there is great might in the thousands of new community grassroots organisations that have proven their mettle during the crisis. If they can hold themselves together, and if they get the right financial support to sustain themselves, then these local organisations could be the solution for eliminating holiday hunger in their communities in the post-COVID world.
Leading From The Front
My Tej Kohli Foundation is going to lead from the front to support these grassroots organisations in adapting to eliminate holiday hunger in their communities in a financially sustainable way. To achieve this, the Foundation will focus on three key activities in the United Kingdom:
1) Providing conditional funding to UK grassroots voluntary and community organisations who have proven their ability to divert 100% of funds directly into food provision with the support of local volunteers and by securing preferential deals with local suppliers. This direct grassroots funding can achieve substantial impact for every pound of funding received.
2) Removing the stigma of young people accepting help and ensuring that they do not need to visit food banks by ‘rebranding’ and ‘repackaging’ the experience of accepting a little extra help. The Tej Kohli’s Foundation’s ‘YouCube’ initiative will soon be available for local organisations to adopt ‘off the shelf’ to deploy in their own local community.
3) Creating sustainability in the provision of funding to ameliorate holiday hunger by making express commitments to recipient families to continue to support them over defined periods of months and years, thus alleviating them from burden and worry and enabling them to plan ahead for the betterment of themselves and their family.
Across the UK communities are coming together in response to Coronavirus to alleviate hunger in their local communities. We must help them to build their legacy beyond the crisis by equipping them to end holiday hunger too.