Earlier this month it was announced that universal free school meals for state primary schoolchildren in London will be extended for another year, whilst families across the rest on England are still facing strict eligibility criteria.
Whilst the extension is welcome support for families in London, outside of London only children from households with an income below £7,400 a year (after tax, before benefits) are eligible. This threshold has not increased since 2018, despite the cost of living crisis and high inflation rates.
There are 900,000 children living in poverty in England who are missing out on national eligibility for free school meals due to the strict threshold set by Government.
Shona Goudie policy and advocacy manager at The Food Foundation, commented: “Lack of action by national policy makers to extend eligibility criteria for school lunches is unfair and will only serve to exacerbate regional inequalities, with schoolchildren outside of London not having access to the same benefits and life chances.
“There are hundreds of thousands of children outside the capital who are living below the poverty line but don’t qualify for a nutritious school lunch. As we enter an election year, policymakers across the board should commit to ensuring no child in the England is left to go hungry at lunchtime.”
The Food Foundation joined forces with The bread and Butter Thing (TBBT), who run 120 food clubs for people on low incomes, to find out how the Government’s lack of action is affecting children across the rest of England.
A study of nearly 3,000 of TBBT’s food club members was conducted and analysed by Dr Megan Blake from the University of Sheffield. The study found that of the households that didn’t have access to free school meals:
- 16% had to send their child to school without lunch some days because they couldn’t afford school meals or packed lunches. An additional 42% worried this would happen in the future
- 32% said their child ate a smaller lunch at school some days because they cannot afford school meals or packed lunches
- 31% said their child eats a less healthy lunch at school some days because they cannot afford school meals or packed lunches
- 85% wanted their child to receive free school meals
The Food Foundation has spoken to headteachers and school staff across England who are joining the call for free school meal eligibility to be extended.
Matthew Knight, catering manager at Hillstone School in Birmingham, said: "Whilst we welcome the further extension of free school meals to all London primary schoolchildren, in Birmingham and the midlands thousands of children will go without a hot nutritious meal at lunch time by virtue of them being in year 3 and not living in London.
“We are hearing stories of hard working families having to choose between paying essential bills or paying for a school meal, we are noticing an increase in packed lunches and, as the cost of living crisis really starts to bite after Christmas, the quality of contents is deteriorating."