Nathan Atkinson knew there was problem when he realised his pupils were scavenging food from the rubbish.
“You’d find that when you put fruit out, there were children who were putting three or four pieces of fruit in their pocket,” the former head of Richmond Hill Primary in inner-city Leeds says. “Or somebody had discarded a half-eaten apple, and another child had taken it from the bin and was eating that apple – what was left of it.”
He can pinpoint the precise moment when he decided that his school had to take serious action.
“It was the Monday after the October half-term holiday,” Atkinson says. “The gas in our kitchen had failed, so we gave the children sandwiches for their dinner – and behaviour that lunchtime and into the afternoon was really bad.”
He sat down with some children from key stage 2 who had been demonstrating the most challenging behaviour that day, and told them he couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to be so angry. He remembers: “One of them said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and he pointed to his stomach and he said, ‘We’re hungry. We’ve had a week off and normally on the first day back we get a roast dinner, and you gave us sandwiches.’”
Further conversations revealed that the children had mainly lived on sandwiches and other dry, cold food through the holidays and needed a hot, filling meal. This wasn’t just about not being able to afford to buy food – sometimes their families couldn’t keep the electricity meter topped up enough to run a toaster or to keep milk cool in the fridge.
The three-form entry school has an intake that is among the 2 per cent most deprived in England. “We were working with children that were vulnerable and were living in poverty, but the specific poverty of food insecurity hadn’t really stood out to us until that point,” says Atkinson.
He rallied his leadership team to hatch a plan. To start with, the school bought a toaster for every classroom, so that each child could have some sort of breakfast.
Although around 100 pupils were already attending a breakfast club, the £1 cost was too high for some families. “One day we found a child outside in the playground, and his sister was in the breakfast club, Atkinson explains. “We went outside and said, ‘Why aren’t you coming in today?’ and he said, ‘We only had £1 between us, so I let my sister come in and have her breakfast.’”
The school also set up a “café” two mornings per week, providing food for pupils’ families, as well as English lessons. Advisers from housing and debt relief services were also brought in.
Then, working with a local charity called the Real Junk Food Project, the school started running a market stall by the front gates, using surplus food donated by supermarkets. Keen to expand the idea, Atkinson held a meeting to discuss it with other school leaders, and 17 signed up on the spot.
Sensing strong demand, he set up Fuel for School, a not-for-profit company that sends unwanted food to schools to sell through their own market stalls via voluntary donations from parents. The scheme’s success led to Atkinson being shortlisted for the 2017 Global Teacher Prize.
Fuel for School has a strong environmental ethos: it has diverted 200 tons of food from going to landfill – and Atkinson says this purpose is vital to remove the stigma of buying discarded food. “If you say, ‘This is helping to save the planet,’ everybody takes the food,” he explains.
He left his headteacher post last year to run the scheme full-time, and 62 schools are now signed up to it, with further expansions in London and Lincoln on the cards.