More than half of all school children living in poverty in England, some 1.2 million, are missing out on free school meals, reveals shocking new research by the Children’s Society.
Around 700,000 children are not entitled to free school meals at all, according to the 'Fair and Square' campaign, which has been launched by the Children's Society today (19 April 2012) with backing from a range of voluntary, policy, union and church bodies, including the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia.
The new report shows that 91 per cent of UK adults believe that all children living in poverty should receive free school meals.
In this country, 2.2 million school children are living in poverty, the Children’s Society points out. Its campaign aims to make sure that all children living in poverty can get a free school meal.
Free school meals provide vital financial support for low-income families, argues the charity and its backers. For almost a third of children, school lunch is their main meal of the day.
The Fair and Square campaign exposes that eligibility for free school meals also has serious ramifications for families in low paid work and those looking to move back into work.
The planned introduction of Universal Credit means that many of the current benefits used to assess who is entitled to free school meals will be scrapped. A completely new system of entitlement is set to be put into place in the next year.
The Children’s Society, backed by organisations including the Trades Union Congress, the Association of Lecturers and Teachers and 4 Children, wants the government to extend free school meals to all children living in poverty, including low-income working families.
At the moment lone parents working 16 or more hours a week (24 hours per week for a couple) lose their entitlement to free school meals. Nearly half (45 per cent) of parents are worried about the financial implications of moving back into work or taking additional hours.
Six of out of ten parents (60 per cent) say that free school meal eligibility has a direct impact on their decision to move back into work, or work more hours. One parent surveyed said: 'When I move into paid work my income will be lower - school lunches are yet another thing to worry about.'
The Children’s Society’s Campaign for Childhood Director, Elaine Hindal, commented: "We have shown that there are literally hundreds of thousands of children living below the poverty line who aren’t getting a free school meal. There is no reasonable defence for this policy failure."
She continued: "The government has an unique opportunity to extend free school meals to all low-income working families, so that no child living in poverty misses out. This would be in line with the government’s aim to make work pay by paving the way for many families to return to employment and help lift them out of poverty."
Evidence shows that eating a healthy meal at lunchtime improves children’s concentration and can have a positive impact on classroom behaviour. Nutritious school meals for disadvantaged children can also help develop healthy eating habits and have the potential to decrease health inequalities.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, which is backing the initiative, said: "Good nutrition isn't a luxury, its an essential. Without decent food, health problems will multiply and millions will remain trapped in impoverished lives."
He added: "Proper school meals for children from working families shouldn't be denied to those on low incomes and with limited budgets.
"Given changes to the benefits system and cuts effecting the most vulnerable, the Children's Society is right to identify free school meals for those on Universal Credit as an axial issue. This is a matter of justice, not charity; common interest, not profligacy," said Barrow.
The government has pledged to end child poverty by 2020, backers of Fair and Square point out.
The Children’s Society’s petition to ask the government to make sure that all children living in poverty can get a free school meal can be signed at: http://action.childrenssociety.org.uk/fair-and-square 
Also on Ekklesia:
* Fair and Square: A policy report on the future of free school meals - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16555 
* Nigel Varndell: Launch of the 'Fair and Square' school meals initiative - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16552