At eight thirty in the morning, parent counselor Rachida Azzouzi (53) pushes open the door to Kasteel Spangen primary school in Rotterdam. Her workday actually starts an hour later. But now she also provides a healthy breakfast for the children, so she has to get up early to make bread.
At eight o’clock, five mothers and Rachida Azzouzi are gathered around a table. Group 7 twins come to help. A large pile of brown cheese sandwiches goes into several plastic containers. This is followed by sandwiches with chocolate spread and jam. Cartons of milk. mandarin oranges. apples.
Slot Spangen spent a month before the summer holidays looking at whether there was a need for breakfast in the school. Now 120 of the 235 children use it. Not all of the 120 grow up in poverty, emphasizes Azzouzi. “But if only the children whose parents have too little money had to eat breakfast, it is stigmatizing. So breakfast is available to everyone.”
In this district, Delfshaven, the children from three other primary schools have breakfast in the classroom. For half of the children in the estimated 100 primary schools in Rotterdam, the financial problems at home are so great that their parents are sometimes no longer able to pay for their groceries. Or the energy bill or the rent. It appears from calculations by the Youth Education Fund, which uses the definition of ‘relative poverty’: more than 120 percent of social assistance (about 2,000 euros net for a couple with two or more children, including allowances).
According to chairman Hans Spekman – former Member of Parliament for PvdA and former party chairman – this applies to 1,800 of the more than 7,000 primary schools in the Netherlands. These schools are allowed to request 10,000 euros per year from the fund for small interventions that improve the life of a student or a group of students. A bed, breakfast packs, a bicycle. 445 schools are affiliated. There is a waiting list.
Last week it was announced that an 11-year-old student from De Catamaran primary school in Rotterdam had become dizzy from hunger in class. He hadn’t eaten in three days, it turned out. The money ran out. No one at school knew that until he got sick. Someone from the school then quickly – and discreetly – ran errands for the family.
Nine parties in the House of Representatives asked questions about the boy. Minister Carola Schouten (Poverty Policy, ChristenUnie) said her officials immediately checked which primary schools have students whose poverty at home is so great that it is at the expense of buying food. And whether breakfast can be served at the schools at short notice. But, Schouten added, halving child poverty – the ambition of the Rutte IV cabinet – “will be difficult”.
Due to high inflation and energy prices, 6.7 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line, according to the Central Planning Bureau (CPB). That percentage should drop to 4.9 percent from the beginning of next year due to the measures announced during Budget Day for the lowest incomes, according to the CPB and the Social and Cultural Planning Office (SCP) in a study published on Tuesday. The minimum wage, social assistance and the national pension will increase by 10 percent in January. Health and housing benefits will increase, as will the children’s budget. Without these measures, more than 9.5 percent of children would live below the poverty line next year.
In order to provide breakfast in five hundred schools with the greatest poverty, in the next three months, until the purchasing power measures come into force, 4 million euros will be needed, says Spekman. “Details are not yet clear. But the money will be released and that we will use it in the very short term”, says Schouten’s spokesperson.
Poverty has existed in Rotterdam for much longer. Social workers working in schools are therefore not surprised by reports of hungry students. Yes, more have come since inflation and energy bills skyrocketed, says Lieke Walraven, social worker at CSBO Bergkristal in North Rotterdam – a primary school for children who need extra support. But it is not new.
At her school, 60 out of 102 students grow up below the poverty line. And de Bergkristal uses a ‘strict definition of poverty’, adds Hans Spekman, who is visiting as chairman of the Youth Education Fund. “You really have to die with them to be counted among the ‘poor’. In fact, you also have to count the parents who work and who manage to live frugally. The people who are just getting by on a very low income.”
There is a lot of stress. I now meet parents who are surviving every day
Lieke Walraven public school social worker
To function at school, children need a good night’s sleep (a bed and silence), breakfast, space to move outside and no stress, explains Lieke Walraven. “There is a lot of stress. I now meet parents who are surviving every day.” Walraven makes home visits to all students at the school to gain the parents’ trust. She also stands outside the school door every morning. She knows the way to several foundations and organizations that can offer help.
also read The student in Rotterdam fell over – from hunger
Children without a bed
Spekman is also not surprised by the growing group of children who do not eat in the morning. Or who don’t have a bed to sleep in. “One out of twenty children in Holland don’t have a bed. They sleep on the floor. There is a shadow world in Holland which is quite big. Most people don’t see them. He affects children’s life.”
Those parents do not work or, on the contrary, work a lot – at night or in the evening – for low pay. In home care, catering, cleaning, security. Spekman: “There is constant stress at home, about money. It was like that even before inflation, but that group is growing now. If a parent needs more help, you have to be there for them. Sometimes they have a lot of debt. What do you, if you suddenly get a bill: 2,000 euros extra tax?”
In some neighborhoods where the Youth Education Fund assists, it is also unsafe. Drug addicts, fathers with loose hands. “Parent counselors and social workers from the school make home visits to the students. But sometimes the police say, because they know, ‘It’s not safe there. There is an abuse problem behind it. Be careful or don’t pass.”
Parent advisor Rachida Azzouzi in Spangen, who worked at various schools, experienced in recent years that there were children without a packed lunch. “They were given a sandwich by a classmate. Or they had some with them, but they were leftovers: a frikandel or cold fritters.” She holds onto her heart for the foreseeable future. “People who already had it tight will find it even more difficult in the coming time. They are cutting back on everything, and the children will feel it: food, clothes, sports clubs.”
When the smørrebrød are gone and classes have started, she drinks coffee with other mothers. Because of the bond of trust she has, they tell her if there are problems. Azzouzi tries to help or refer them. She talks about schemes such as the energy allowance, which people can apply for. “Often they have already done it, or their children have already said it, but there are always some who don’t know.”