ALMOST a quarter of a million children in England are missing out on free school meals worth nearly £500 per child due to the lack of an automated sign-up system, councils have warned. This is money which under-pressure families could be spending on other essentials, amidst record food prices and spiralling inflation.

A further estimated 800,000 children living in poverty are not entitled to free school meals (FSMs) because their household’s income is just above the eligible £7,400 annual income threshold, which has remained unchanged since its introduction in 2018.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England, says the approximate £470 given by government to cover the cost of each child’s free school meals (FSMs) per year could be extended to many more children in need, if the application process was simplified and made automatic.

The LGA says the process for parents and guardians to sign up their children for FSMs should be streamlined, to capture those who already meet the criteria and ensure no child goes without at least one hot nutritious meal a day. Automatic enrolment, instead of parents having to formally apply to their local authority or via their child’s academy school, could benefit the estimated 11 per cent of eligible school children – equivalent to 215,000 pupils – who have not yet taken up the offer.

This in turn would generate tens of millions of pounds in vital extra pupil premium funding for schools, which is allocated based on the number of agreed FSM applications per school. This would also help ensure funding gets to where it is needed, in order to narrow the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers.

In addition to tackling food poverty, FSMs have also been linked to better results in class and improved diet, leading to a reduction in diet-related health inequalities such as obesity.

Latest research has found that if eligibility was increased, for every £1 invested there could be a return of £1.38. This consists of saving on food costs for families, increased lifetime earnings due to improved educational attainment, and other savings to schools and the NHS due to reduced obesity rates.

The LGA is calling for the Government to urgently introduce automatic-enrolment and consider extending eligibility for FSMs, to ensure all children in poverty are entitled to at least one hot meal per day, including a review of the current income threshold of £7,400 per year.

This needs to be alongside a fair and sufficient mainstream welfare system, which ensures families have enough income to meet their essential living costs, in addition to long-term local welfare funding for councils to provide discretionary support to those most in need.

Cllr Pete Marland, Chairman of the LGA’s Resources Board, said: “Free school meals are a vital lifeline for families who are struggling to make ends meet, just as food prices continue to rise. Food inflation is at its highest for almost half a century and this is hitting the poorest households hardest. The near-£500 annual saving for a family for each child on free school meals can make all the difference, now more so than ever before.

“Encouraging those who are eligible to sign up and automating the process will help relieve this financial burden, freeing up family budgets and improving the next generation’s health, education and prospects. The Government should see this as an investment in our children’s future, to help them and their families get through this cost of living crisis and come out of it stronger, healthier and more secure”.