Imagine turning up to school so hungry that you're unable to concentrate on learning in the classroom. It might sound like something out of a third world country, but this is a reality for many school children across the UK right now.
It is estimated 3.9 million children are living in "relative poverty" in the UK, according to government figures for 2014/15
. That's almost one third (29%) of children and an increase of 200,000 on the previous year. A household is considered to live in "relative poverty" if its income is less than 60% of the median
(that's £24,7000, before housing costs).
This story is too familiar for pupils at Richmond Hill primary school, which serves an extremely deprived area in Leeds. Of its 600 pupils, 70% are eligible for free school meals and many arrive at school hungry, without having had any breakfast.
An empty stomach is widely understood to negatively affect to a child's academic performance, impacting concentration and energy levels. A comprehensive review
of various studies on the matter also concluded that children who eat breakfast are more likely to have higher school grades than those who do not.
That's why headteacher Nathan Atkinson made it his mission to combat pupil hunger and remove it as a barrier to learning. But on an already tight budget, he had to think outside the box.The Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP)
offered the perfect solution. A pioneering food waste initiative, which first launched in Leeds back in early 2014, TRJFP intercepts food from restaurants and supermarkets that is destined for landfill and redirects it to people in need, through food banks or cafes that operate on a 'Pay As You Feel' basis.
Richmond Hill and TRJFP partnered to create 'Fuel For School', a programme that uses food waste to feed all pupils, not just those from vulnerable families. The programme provides a nutritional education via a newly-built school kitchen and has used food as an effective tool to engage with and support families. To help appeal to the children, the programme has a mascot, Fred The Fox, whose motto is Feed, Recycle, Educate and Dine (F.R.E.D.).
If the idea of eating food destined for the bin sounds too much to stomach, it's not. According to TRJFP, best before dates are "arbitrary" and its criteria for selecting suitable food waste has been approved in 2014 by the Environmental Health Organisation (EHO), which is happy with the food being used and the organisation's storage methods.
The food would have gone to waste otherwise and you don't want to waste food that people can still have - Zack, 10
The food regularly intercepted includes fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, cheese, cooking oil and tinned or jarred products.
Speaking previously to The Huffington Post UK
, Sam Jacobs, one of the organisation's co-founders said: "Who says that bang on 11:59pm some food is going to go off? In our eyes, if a vegetable is not mouldy, then it's fine to eat."
And with an estimated one third of the world's food wasted every year - approximately 1.3 billion tonnes - according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, it's high time the food was put to good use.
One of the first ways the school pledged to address hunger, was to provide breakfast every morning for all pupils. By intercepting bread past its sell-by date from the local Hovis factory, using jam made in school and providing fruit juice, all 600 pupils are now fed daily at no extra cost to the school or families.
Since the school started offering breakfast, Atkinson says there has been higher attendance and that pupils that concentration levels, and therefore academic performance, has improved. But breakfast was just the beginning.
Thanks to the official partners of TRJFP, such as Morrisons and Ocado, the school is now able to intercept a huge amount of food waste. "Everything we use in school is junk food, in the sense that it would have been binned otherwise," explains Atkinson, proudly.
Zack, 10, who is a pupil at Richmond Hill, is a food waste convert: "It tastes the same as normal food. It would have gone to waste otherwise and you don't want to waste food that people can still have."
Any unused food is placed on the school's market stall, which is open twice a week and operates on a 'Pay As You Feel' basis with an honesty box.
This availability of such food is invaluable to parents from lower income households. Atkinson says the local area is known as a "food desert", which means residents have to travel more than 500 metres to obtain fresh food.
One parent, who wished to remain anonymous, told HuffPost UK: "Being able to get fresh fruit and vegetables from the market stall at school has really helped me and my family. In winter, the money we saved meant we could spend more money on heating and in summer we get amazing fruits that otherwise I wouldn't be able to afford."
Another parent was able to use the money saved to buy a steriliser for her newborn baby's bottles. Until then, she'd been forced to sterilise them using boiling water, which was time consuming, and arrival of the steriliser meant she can now spend more quality time with her children.
Following the programme's initial success at using food waste, Richmond Hill hosted a local awareness day, inviting schools in the area to take part in a special one-off event that would provide free breakfast for their pupils. Schools from as far as Scarborough and Doncaster signed up and on 8 December 2015, as many as 10,000 children were fed using food otherwise destined for landfill.
"It was so powerful. Afterwards I came out, sat in my office and just cried," says Atkinson. "This is real life."
Following the awareness day, 'Fuel For School' was formalised into a service level agreement with 28 schools in Leeds, where a total of six tonnes of food waste is delivered twice a week. There has also been interest in the programme from schools as far as Brighton and Wigan.
Food has enabled us to do this and it's food that would have been binned. So it's a pretty powerful model - Nathan Atkinson, Headteacher
But Richmond Hill isn't just pioneering in terms of food waste.
For each child eligible for free meals, schools also receive Pupil Premium funding
from local authorities. This money is intended to help improve the academic attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who statistically perform worse than their classmates, but how each school spends the money is up to them.
For the 2016/2017 financial year, a school will receive £1,320 for each pupil in reception to year 6. For a school like Richmond Hill, which has more than 400 eligible pupils, this adds up to over £500,000 per year.
Atkinson decided to spend the money on creating a bespoke job for a Food and Wellbeing advisor, who would intercept the food waste, manage the market stall for part of the day and hold cookery lessons to teach the children about nutrition. Lloyd Nolan has been working in the position since September 2015. The school also decided to spend money on installing a fully-fitted kitchen, which could be used by Nolan to hold regular lessons.
"Lots of schools use the extra money to fund another teacher's salary or buy additional lessons," Atkinson told HuffPost UK. "But our kids aren't ready for learning, so we have to support them in being prepared for lessons."
He believes it is far more effective for Richmond Hill to get to the root of the problem. "We took a big step back to make sure our kids are ready to learn."
And it's certainly paid off. Following a Pupil Premium audit from Ofsted in July 2015, Richmond Hill was praised for its innovative approach. Atkinson also recently gave a presentation on the programme to the All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food.
Atkinson says that the programme has helped improve relationships between the school and parents.
The school opens the kitchen daily between 8.30am and 10.30am as a cafe for parents. Using money earned from the market stall, the school bought a handful of tablets so that parents who might not otherwise have internet access can use them to apply for jobs or bid for housing.
"Food has enabled us to do this and it's food that would have been binned. So it's a pretty powerful model really."
The programme has become so central to the life of pupils and their families, that the school does its best to keep operating during school holidays.
The market stall and cafe maintain the same opening hours and each day a tea party is held at the school, and all pupils can attend.
"We have used food as a medium to engage with our families," Atkinson says, explaining that increased regular conversations with parents allow the school to provide additional support where needed.
Despite the project's undeniable success Atkinson has faced opposition and criticism. "People challenge me and say this isn't a teacher's job."
But for him, ensuring his pupils are fully equipped to learn and that families are able to eat better, is a continuation, not a departure from his role.
"We're educating pupils and families, and that is our core purpose."
Story - Brogan Driscoll
Senior Lifestyle Editor The Huffington Post UK