The children arrive with the telltale signs: shrunken faces, sallow skin, dark rings around their eyes and rotting teeth.
Some of the 11-year-olds are so underweight and undersized they look like six-year-olds, and those aged six often look only three or four.
You do not expect to find severely malnourished children on the streets of London in 2012, three months before the city showcases itself for the Olympics, but workers employed by Kids Company — a charity feeding thousands of extremely vulnerable children — say that child hunger is on the rise and they see it daily at their network of street-level centres.
Young mother Susan Scott, 21, who arrived at Kids Company nine months ago weighing six-and-a-half stone, described what it felt like to go hungry. “It gives you a blinding headache, you’re constantly feeling sick, your belly’s hurting, your head’s hurting, you can’t concentrate. You feel irritable with your baby and wish it would go away.
“Me and my three-year-old daughter lived off cornflakes for two weeks every month because the £20 I had left for food after paying my other household bills ran out. I would fantasise about walking out of the supermarket with a trolley full of food like other mothers but I had no money so I ate secretly in the aisle without paying. I always went for sandwiches and yoghurt because they fill you up quick, but then I got caught and shamed and was told to leave. One time I didn’t eat for a week, except for water, and my stomach got full with gas. I just swelled up and I had to go to A&E.”
Today Susan, doing a midwifery access course, is no longer malnourished and goes to Kids Company for her main meal of the day, along with 2,000 young people they feed every week.
Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder and chief executive of Kids Company, said: “The number of children coming to us with hunger problems has increased five-fold in a decade and the number of children self-referring on a daily basis has doubled in the last year.
“We are struggling to cope with the scale of this silent epidemic of hunger. More than 60 per cent of the 2,000 children we help every week tell us there is no food at home and 85 per cent rely on us for their main meal of the day. What I am seeing shocks even me. One child told me that he and his brother were so hungry they stole frozen meat from a flat they visited — and they ate it raw.
“We see children who are literally starving, including children whose parents are seeking leave to remain in Britain but have no access to benefits or employment in the meantime and so no means to provide for their kids. We are also seeing a rise in hunger among children from London-born parents who used to scrape by but have been undone by the rise in the cost of living and unemployment and now run out of food midweek.”
Today, as families look forward to the Easter break, Kids Company is launching an appeal — the Kids Company Plate Pledge — calling on Evening Standard readers to help give thousands of hungry and malnourished kids a break. It costs the charity just £1 to provide a child with a hot nutritious meal for a day, and a £20 donation would sustain one child for a month.
On a visit to their Kenbury Street site in Camberwell, the Standard saw 250 children hunker down to a lunch of barbecued chicken, hot-dogs, salad and coleslaw.
Among them was 10-year-old Alex who said: “I come here every day after school for my main meal. I come because I like the food, and because I used to go hungry at home. I’d get really, really hungry. I’d tell my mum, Why can’t I have a hot supper like the other children?’ Often I had to make a sandwich for dinner or eat biscuits.
“Sometimes my older brother would take me to the chicken shop to get wings and chips for a pound. Other times we would ask our neighbour if they had any food or even a few biscuits. I still get nervous about having enough food to eat and I’m always dreaming and thinking about what I can hope to eat for lunch.
“My older brother got wobbly teeth because he didn’t eat much. I’m scared. When you get older, like 12, will I also lose my teeth?”
Laurence Guinness, head of campaigns for Kids Company, said they helped teenagers of 13 who had turned to prostitution to make money for food, as well as mothers of children with rickets.
“This young mother had come to us to feed her and her five-year-old son, but when the nurse held her one-year-old daughter, the child could not get comfortable and she felt something strange. Our nurse immediately made a referral to King’s College Hospital who diagnosed the child with rickets and put her on super- nutritional supplements.”
The Strategic Health Authority report that hospital admissions for rickets among under-25s in London has actually fallen from 35 in 2009 to 15 last year. Mr Guinness believes this data is “out of sync” with the rise in malnutrition they’re experiencing.
“The synergistic effects of youth unemployment and the rising cost of food and heating are combining to create something we haven’t seen in London for a long time. Our estimate is that thousands of children in London are starving and that tens of thousands are going hungry on a regular basis.”
Clare Gerada, chair of council of the Royal College of General Practitioners, told the Standard that rickets was on the rise: “I saw children presenting with rickets very early in my career and now doctors are seeing it again. Certainly paediatricians and obstetricians are seeing a rise across the capital.”
A recent survey of 21 inner London schools by Kids Company revealed that head teachers are worried about hunger too, with 82 per cent reporting that poor nutrition was affecting pupils’ ability to concentrate, and 42 per cent that the majority of their students were malnourished.
Kids Company key worker Lee Anderson, 41, said that the conditions they found some children living in was “frankly inhumane”. “I work with a 10-year-old called Chris and his two older brothers, both of whom have lost their four adult front teeth due to extreme malnourishment. They live with their mother since their alcoholic father was jailed for domestic violence. I will never forget when we visited their house because it took four of us nine hours to clean up just the kitchen. We found dog faeces in the cupboards.
“The only food Chris ever ate was McDonald’s and fizzy drinks. Over the months, we have changed his eating habits and we’ve started to see a change in his behaviour.”
Ms Batmanghelidjh called on the mayoral candidates to try to imagine life from the point of view of a desolate child. “The poorest children in London don’t have a voice. I’d like to see Boris and Ken urgently address this issue in their election manifestos. We have a collective responsibility to make sure every child in London always has enough to eat. This is a basic human need and a basic human right. And it is something we can solve as a society, if we want to.”
The names of individuals suffering from hunger have been changed.
Additional reporting Emer Martin