SCHOOLS across England are regularly paying to feed hungry pupils, according to polling of 10,000 teachers commissioned by the charity School Food Matters. The findings come amid growing calls for the government to expand access to free school meals.

The polling by Teacher Tapp asked teachers in England about the extent of pupil hunger at their schools and the impact it is having on children and their learning. It found that four in 10 (38 per cent) teachers surveyed said pupils in their class were regularly too hungry to learn, with the figure jumping to 63 per cent in the most deprived areas. More than a fifth of teachers (22 per cent) said this issue has got worse since the start of the academic year in September 2023.

The government has so far resisted calls from a coalition of school food campaigners, children’s charities, headteachers, public health experts and unions to expand the eligibility criteria for free school meals. To be eligible, a child’s family must be in receipt of Universal Credit and have a total household income of less than £7,400 in a year, resulting in an estimated one million children (one in three) living in poverty in England missing out on free school meals. Schools across the country have been left to pick up the pieces, according to figures from the School Food Matters survey.

Four in 10 (38 per cent) senior leaders said their school has been providing free school meals to pupils who are not eligible, with that number rising to half (51 per cent) in the poorest areas. More than half (58 per cent) of senior leaders said demand for this support has increased since September. A quarter said their school has written off school meals debt this year, and 24 per cent said they had opened a food bank to support struggling families.

Stephanie Slater, Founder and Chief Executive at School Food Matters, said: “The news that cash-strapped schools across England are dipping into their budgets to feed hungry children is shocking. Schools cannot continue to plug gaps in provision with these drastic measures. The government must expand free school meals so that every child has the good nutrition they need to thrive.”

The teacher poll further revealed that the issue of child hunger at school varies significantly across the country, with schools in the North West and South West in particular forced to dip into their school budgets to feed pupils ineligible for free school meals.

Terri Cheung, Headteacher at Phoenix Primary School in Liverpool, said: “Our school is in an area of high deprivation, and we have lots of families who struggle financially. Some children come in hungry every single day. We also have so many families who aren’t eligible for free school meals because they earn a tiny bit over the £7,400 threshold. It doesn’t mean our children go hungry. We definitely make sure that they eat, but it’s coming out of the school budget. The way it’s going now, that’s not going to be sustainable. We get less and less money every year and the bills have gone up.”

The London Mayor’s policy to provide free school meals to all primary school children for the next four years is a welcome investment in children’s health and wellbeing, removing stigma and supporting struggling families.

Nikita Sinclair, Director of Children’s Health and Food at Impact on Urban Health, a partner of School Food Matters, said: “It’s not right that one in three children living in poverty in England are missing out on a hot, nutritious meal each day. Because they fall outside the current threshold, these children are more likely to experience poor health outcomes and fall behind their peers.

“Primary school children in London benefiting under the Mayor’s policy are already experiencing the positive impacts free school meals can bring. Investing in children’s health and expanding free school meals nationally would provide significant long-term benefits to the economy and give all children the chance to learn and thrive, no matter where they live.”

It is hoped that an upcoming evaluation of London’s universal primary free school meals programme will strengthen the case for the government to roll out free school meals for all children across the country.

This is a popular policy with schools, with just over 70 per cent of teachers surveyed believing that free school meals for all primary and secondary pupils would be a “worthwhile investment in children’s education”.

The teachers in the School Food Matters survey were also asked about what they perceive to be the main benefits of a child having a nutritious meal. A resounding 97 per cent of teachers said they believe nutritious school meals deliver benefits for pupils in the classroom, including improving behaviour, attainment and attendance. A recent study by the University of Essex found evidence that providing free school meals for all primary school children reduces obesity prevalence and helps to improve reading skills.

Research commissioned by the School Food Review last year found that 68 per cent of voters support an initial extension of free school meals to all families receiving Universal Credit, and then to all children in primary and secondary education.

School Food Matters exists to teach children about food and to improve children’s access to healthy, sustainable food during their time at school.

* Source: School Food Matters