‘We’ve got children with bowed legs because they’re so deficient in vitamins. We’ve had children so malnourished they’ve had heart murmurs.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s not how it should be. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it. We’ve got two-year-olds coming in and trying to eat sand because they’re hungry.”

These are the words of a Norwich headteacher, discussing the levels of poverty and malnourishment facing children in parts of the city as we enter 2024.

Yes, you read that right. 

This is happening in Norwich, right now. It’s heartbreaking.

In case you missed it, this was the grim picture painted by Jade Hunter, a headteacher at West Earlham Infant and Nursery School, speaking to The Guardian newspaper in the lead up to Christmas.

The article went on to describe how malnutrition is increasing nationwide, with Norfolk one of the worst-affected areas. The Norfolk and Waveney Integrated Care Board (ICB) recorded a malnutrition rate of 6.7%, according to a recent report by Future Health.

That story hit me like a punch to the stomach. I am sure many felt the same. 

How could this happen in our ‘fine city’? How could this happen in our wonderful county?

But it’s happening folks. Right under our noses and on our watch. This is Norwich and Norfolk’s uncomfortable truth. 

A place of tremendous opportunity for so many of us, but also one in which the divide between the haves and have nots is growing ever vast. 

Not just in terms of malnourishment, but in other areas too, such as financial status, housing standards and general opportunities.

It’s not right and cannot be allowed to continue.

So what shall we do about it? 

I don’t have all the answers, although I do have plenty of suggestions. What I am sure of, is that the starting point must be to get this on the agenda. 

Where is this being talked about? Where is our growing poverty problem being discussed at County Hall? City Hall? Anywhere?

Why isn’t this being given the same amount of airtime as the Western Link? Why aren’t people up in arms about this, in the same way they are about Anglia Square?

I know plenty of people care, I know plenty of people try to do their bit to help, but in general are we all just a little bit comfortable in our own lives to do enough to make a real difference to those people facing real hardships?

And I include myself in that. 

We must do better. 

In 2024 we must do better for those children turning up at our schools malnourished and hungry. 

We must do better for those families still flocking to foodbanks in their droves - and that’s all over the county.

Granted, this was just one story. 

But Norfolk Community Law Service (NCLS) and the charities and social enterprises we work with, are seeing examples like this every single day. 

A recent cost-of-living roundtable of advice charities, hosted by MPClive Lewis and prospective MP Alice Macdonald, heard how all are facing increased demand and working with clients facing even greater challenges.

Meanwhile, at NCLS have been studying our data for the first six months of the financial year and they highlight some of the ways people are being impacted;

All services under growing demand as more people in trouble and fewer able to afford legal support

  1. Average debt rising, especially utility debt which has grown by 27pc in just 12 months
  2. More victims of domestic abuse
  3. More people seeking help as family break-ups increase
  4. More people wrongly denied benefits - demand on our appeals service is growing, as is success rate (81pc)
  5. ​Increased demand on immigration team as many concerned about their futures and that of their loved ones

For many people, things are getting worse.

And I’m calling on Norfolk County Council, Norwich City Council, all our district councils and any organisation with an interest in Norfolk and its people to get this on the agenda. We need to have this debate. We need to do better.

We need to work harder to find a way to help our most deprived communities, struggling families, poverty-stricken individuals, young and old.

Come on Norfolk. We’re better than this.

David Powles is chief executive officer of Norfolk Community Law Service.