Guest blog: Holiday Activities and Food Programme: Reflections from delivery across Cheshire and Merseyside

by Chloe Higham-Smith | 28 September, 2022 10:48 am

In our latest guest blog, we hear from Registered Nutritionist, Seóna Dunne, to discuss findings from the evaluation of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme across Cheshire and Merseyside, and how this programme enriches children’s health and wellbeing.

The Holiday Activities and Food programme, otherwise known as HAF, has been in operation by the Department of Education in England since 2018. The provision provides all primary school aged children in England, who are entitled to Free School Meals (FSM) an opportunity to participate in out of school activities and consume healthy meals. The details of this provision is decided by each individual local authority, supporting those children and families with enriching summer holiday support through activities and meals within their own local communities. With the cost of living rising over the past year coupled with the pressures and impact of Covid-19 lockdowns, the HAF provision has been paramount in supporting families and children in our communities who need it the most. It has been demonstrated extensively in research, that the out of school holiday periods are pressure points for families. In addition, it has been widely understood that engaging children in routine and enriching activities during these times, supports the young people in social and academic development. Before the roll out of the HAF programme to upper tier local authorities in 2021, two colleagues and I were involved in multiple service evaluations of the pilot HAF programme. This started in the borough of Cheshire West and Chester (summer 2019) initially, followed by the roll out of the programme in Cheshire West and Chester, Halton and Wirral (summer 2020).

Focusing on the summer 2020 provision, this scheme was particularly poignant and of great interest. The scheme delivered provision under strict Covid-19 guidance and three geographical areas, Halton, Wirral and Cheshire West and Chester – all with their own unique demographics. Due to social distancing rules, the provision was mixed, with more providers than initially expected delivering face to face activities, with others focusing on the delivery of home packages of both food and activity kits, and a limited number of providers offering online activities only. The provision reached 11,471 young people over 155,904 attendance/engagement instances, with an estimated total of 147,554 meals provided (excluding breakfast or additional meals). This accounts for almost 52% of eligible children and teenagers across the three local areas. Families valued very positively the experience, particularly those who also received access to computers and internet dongles, which contributed to narrowing the digital access gap. Effects of the lockdown on mental health and the positive contribution of the summer activities to improve aspects related to mental health, is one of the findings of this research.

A mixed methods approach was utilised in this research; combining the analysis of statistical data provided by funder with the qualitative data extracted from a series of semi-structured interviews with providers (including schools), parents, children, and members of the Partnership Boards, including local area coordinators. These are complemented with data from online questionnaires answered by parents, children (primary and secondary school) and providers, and a small sample of paper questionnaires. Through these different data collection methods, it was noted that many parents positively valued doing more things together as a family, as a direct result of taking part in the Holiday programme; with both parents and providers stating the provision supported ‘creating family memories’. While in previous years there could be a perception of activities tailored for boys and girls as separated groups, this particular year found that the provision took a much more inclusive and integrative approach, with varieties appealing to all groups indistinctively. The HAF providers also observed positive changes in young people from the beginning of the activities to the end, with particularly good outcomes with regards to self-confidence and resilience. The development of social skills, even in socially distance settings, was also perceived, with children belonging to SEND groups managing to integrate themselves and enjoy social activities with others. Those who provided food onsite particularly observed the willingness of children to try new types of food, being surprised by some situations in which ‘some children didn’t even know what a jacket potato was’. There was very little focus on education of healthy eating with more of a focus on provision of food. In addition, it was noted that the type of food offered by local groups differed; with some offering hot food provision and some cold food. In terms of nutrition education, most young people recognised the need to include fruits and vegetables in their diets, however when asked about favourite food, the most repeated answer was pizza, followed by pasta, with snacks (kit kat in particular) and curries regularly mentioned. It was not surprising that when asked about their favourite activity during the summer holiday provision, common answers were cooking of cheesecake and chocolate cake. Only one child mentioned ‘fruit kebabs’ as a favourite. Parents in that sense confirmed their attempts to provide a balanced diet, though stated it was difficult to change children’s preferences, particularly of those who declare themselves as ‘fussy eaters’.

All in all, the HAF provision during the summer of 2020 in Halton, Wirral and Cheshire West and Chester was seen as a much needed and appreciated resource. The evaluation’s findings indicated positive changes in children and the wider families, particularly in self-confidence and sense of happiness, improvement of mood and behaviour at home. Although children were willing to try new foods, the lack of focus around healthy eating education needs to be addressed, as greater knowledge of health and nutrition is a core aim stated by the Department of Education.

In 2022 we see that the HAF provision has been extended across many local authorities and delivered throughout different holiday periods, the need for this support is continuing to grow. Our children and young people are our future and they need to be supported and enriched. However, questions need to be asked as to what social and political structures need to change in order for provision like HAF not to be required in the 21st century.

Seóna Dunne, RNutr (Public Health) is a registered Public Health Nutritionist who has a passion for early years and paediatric nutrition as well as researching the sociological influences on health and health behaviours. Seóna is a Senior Lecturer and Programme leader of the MSc Public Health Nutrition within the department of Clinical Sciences and Nutrition at the University of Chester; with previous roles focusing on community nutrition, public health and health promotion. Seóna is currently completing her PhD on the factors supporting successful breastfeeding amongst families in the North West of England.

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