Changemakers on the big issues

Ella Rhodes reports on two psychologists in the list.

The Big Issue recently named ‘100 Changemakers for 2020’ including individuals, campaign groups and charities who are working to tackle challenges facing the world. Two psychologists, working on holiday hunger and decision-making, were named on the list.

Developmental psychologist Professor Greta Defeyter (Northumbria University) shifted her research focus around 17 years ago after visiting a school breakfast club, where she was exploring the effect of different breakfast cereals on cognition, and saw a young boy stuffing toast into his pockets. ‘I spoke to the head teacher of the school and she explained to me that… they were running a school breakfast club because children were coming into school hungry and they weren’t able to concentrate… and that their behaviour was also very poor.’

At the time there had been hardly any UK research on school breakfast clubs and Defeyter began looking into the effects of attending breakfast clubs on children’s social relationships, attendance, behaviour and cognition. Later, while attending an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on School Food, it suddenly occurred to Defeyter that many of the children who relied on breakfast clubs and free school meals during term time would have no such support during school holidays.

Defeyter, who is also Director of the interdisciplinary Healthy Living Lab, turned her attention to so-called holiday hunger, finding again that the area had been under researched, although some local-level interventions did exist to support families across the school holidays. She has explored the effects of school holidays on children’s dietary intake, social relationships, health, wellbeing and educational attainment, as well as the role of holiday clubs in ameliorating some of these factors.

Defeyter said one of the most surprising things she had uncovered in her research so far was the extent of holiday hunger. ‘It was a hidden hunger. One of the first things we did, working with colleagues from social sciences, was to map the extent of holiday provision across the UK. This published research clearly showed evidence of need and the need for a nationwide programme to ensure families and children’s needs are met. The need for that provision was probably the most surprising thing... current estimates suggest that about four million children are at risk of food insecurity.’

Defeyter and her colleagues at the Healthy Living Lab are also active in bringing their work to the attention of policymakers. The lab shares its findings directly through the Commons Library and the APPG on School Food and the APGG on Hunger as well through Select Committees. Defeyter is an advisor for government and her work has been included in various government publications.

Defeyter said she was ‘absolutely flabbergasted’ when she learned of her inclusion as a Big Issue Changemaker. ‘I want to say thanks to The Big Issue because they’ve really laid down the challenge. It’s not what my lab has done, the challenge is what we are going to do in the future.’ Defeyter said the solution to holiday hunger was not as simple as handing out parcels of food to struggling families – she said a true shift would involve a change in government policies that address structural causes of poverty, including reform to the benefits system, alongside a change in culture and attitudes. ‘This is something that will involve a cultural shift in attitudes towards holiday provision across the UK. The stigma at the moment is around the fact that holiday clubs are something that are primarily offered to the disadvantaged members of our society… I suggest that we see holiday provision as a nationwide offer to all children and families.’

Defeyter, who is also part of the British Psychological Society’s Expert Reference Group on its policy priority for the year – From Poverty to Flourishing – said that alongside these approaches governments should also consider benefit reform, the living wage and investing in communities. ‘These are the real key factors that will drive changes in poverty and help the estimated 5.2 million children that are predicted to be in poverty over the next few years.’

A second Changemaker, Chartered Psychologist and chief fire officer with West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, has had a life of defying the odds. At 15 she became homeless for almost two years and sold The Big Issue before starting work in the fire service aged 18. As well as gaining her PhD while working full-time in the fire service, and becoming the youngest fire chief in the UK aged 36, Cohen-Hatton is also an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University. She has researched decision-making and risk in firefighters – work that has informed national policy and won multiple awards.

Last year Cohen-Hatton published her book The Heat of the Moment and since then has appeared on Desert Island Discs, in Marie Claire’s 2019 list of Future Makers, and challenged stereotypes and the stigma of homelessness. She told The Big Issue: ‘I want to encourage people not to feel ashamed of their backgrounds or where they’ve come from. It was something I suffered with for a long time. I don’t want anyone else to feel like they have to hide part of their history, because it makes you who you are.’ 

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