EARLIER THIS MONTH it was announced that Universal Free School Meals for state primary school children in London will be extended for another year, whilst families across the rest on England are still facing strict eligibility criteria.

The Food Foundation, an independent charity, and The Bread and Butter Thing (TBBT), who run 120 food clubs for people on low incomes across the North West, North East, Yorkshire and the Midlands, have been consulting families outside of the capital to find out how national government’s lack of action is affecting children across the rest of England.

A survey of nearly 3,000 of TBBT’s food club members, who have signed up to have access to low cost weekly shopping bags, was conducted with data 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 per cent had to send their child to school without lunch some days because they couldn’t afford school meals or packed lunches, with an additional 42 per cent worried this would happen in the future
  • 32 per cent said their child ate a smaller lunch at school some days because they cannot afford school meals or packed lunches
  • 31 per cent said their child eats a less healthy lunch at school some days because they cannot afford school meals or packed lunches
  • 85 per cent wanted their child to receive free school meals

Emergency measures were introduced in February 2023 by the Mayor of London so that all state primary school children in London had access to free school meals to support families through the ongoing cost of living crisis. This measure was initially put in place for a year. Earlier this month it was announced the policy would be extended for a second year.

Whilst the extension is welcome support for families in London, outside 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.

The Food Foundation is calling on politicians from all parties to extend access to Free School Meals to all school children, with the first step being to immediately target children from families receiving Universal Credit.

Previous polling from The Food Foundation, shows that a lack of action from national policy makers is at odds with very strong public support for FSM, with 78 per cent of adults in England in a recent representative poll of 3,000 people saying that they support FSM provision.

Support for expanding provision holds regardless of political persuasion: 82 per cent of Labour voters and over half (53 per cent) of Conservative voters are in favour of extending FSM immediately to all children receiving Universal Credit, followed by extending it to all school children in the future. The majority of people (70 per cent) think the current threshold of under £7,400 is inadequate or should not be there at all.

Support for FSM among teachers is also high: 83 per cent of teachers feel that there are children who come to school hungry because their families cannot afford enough food, and that this number has increased in recent months:85 per cent of teachers think that currently ineligible children would benefit from FSM. Teachers’ unions, such as the National Education Union, the National Governance Association (NGA), NASUWT and National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) have all supported the call for FSM expansion.

Shona Goudie, Policy and Advocacy Manager, The Food Foundation, said, “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 England is left to go hungry at lunchtime.”

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.

Matt Perry, Headteacher, Halifax Academy, Halifax, said, “Sadiq Khan should be praised for his understanding and action that every child should have a right to a free school meal but this should not be seen as a privilege or benefit – this should be an essential right for all students. Once again students in the north and other areas are being left behind. When will politicians realise that children should not be going to school hungry no matter where they are in the country?”

Matthew Knight, Catering Manager, Hillstone School, Birmingham, said, “Whilst we welcome the further extension of FSM to all London primary school children, 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.”

Tom Foster, Head Teacher, Stainforth Kirton Lane Primary School, Doncaster said, “As a school leader, it is welcome news to hear that the London mayor has further extended free school meals, recognising the importance of food for all. Unfortunately, being limited only to London and not the rest of the country is further increasing inequity. All children and families deserve this vital support in such challenging times.”

* More about The Bread and Butter Thing here.

* Source: The Food Foundation