MORE THAN A MILLION additional school children in England and Wales could receive free school meals and be entitled to extra support funding if the sign-up process for the scheme was simplified and extended to more families, councils say.

The Local Government Association of England and Wales said automatic enrolment for free school meals should be introduced and eligibility expanded to include all children who meet the income criteria, regardless of their parents’ circumstances.

It comes as the Government is expected to publish its food strategy white paper imminently. This will contain a range of new proposals on tackling inequalities in access to healthy food and improving the environmental and public health impact of our national food supply.

Automatic enrolling of school children who are eligible for free school meals and expanding its criteria were among the recommendations in the National Food Strategy, written by businessman and campaigner Henry Dimbleby, which the LGA is calling on the government to include in the upcoming white paper.

The LGA is also urging the Government to review the current £7,400 income threshold for free school meals, which has remained unchanged since its introduction in 2018, in order to reach more children who are on the cusp of experiencing food poverty as household budgets are squeezed by rising prices and inflation.

Data, on which school children are eligible, is already held at the government level, but the current process means parents have to formally apply to their local authority, or via their child’s academy school, to claim for free school meals.

Government estimates on claim rates indicate that automatic enrolment could capture the 11 per cent of eligible school children who have not yet taken up the offer. Analysis of these figures by the LGA and the Child Poverty Action Group show this equates to 215,000 school children in England, under the current eligibility criteria.

This in turn would generate tens of millions of pounds in valued extra pupil premium funding for schools, which is allocated based on the number of free school meals claims per school, to help them narrow the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers.

A further 1.1 million children could benefit from free school meals if the income threshold is changed and immigration limitations on who is eligible are lifted on a permanent basis, for example, if the threshold was raised to £20,000 and extended to include those families who are undocumented or with no recourse to public funds, as recommended in the strategy.

Cllr Shaun Davies, Chair of the LGA’s Resources Board, said: “Rising food, fuel and other costs affect everybody, but particularly low-income households with children who rely on extra support to make ends meet.

“Given these pressures, it is absolutely essential that all those who are eligible can get the help they need, including access to free school meals, at a time when we know the price of food and the general cost of living are spiralling.

“Streamlining and removing the red tape in the applications process, so that councils get given the information they need, is vital if we are to ensure no child misses out on a healthy meal. The Government should also urgently look to raise the earnings threshold and permanently extend the criteria to those who are currently not eligible due to immigration status, including undocumented parents and those who are not able to access public funds, so that no child goes hungry.”

* Source: Local Government Association