NINE hundred thousand children in poverty are not eligible for free school meals because the qualifying criteria are so restrictive, new Child Poverty Action Group analysis of Department for Education data reveals.

The charity calls on all political parties to make universal free school meals (FSM) a priority pledge in their election manifestos to relieve pressure on household budgets and ensure every child has the food they need to learn and thrive.

In England through national schemes, universal free school meals are only provided to children in reception, year one and year two. From year three onwards, free school meals are means-tested. For a family on universal credit to qualify, their combined household income must be £7,400 or less, excluding benefit payments.

Research by CPAG and the National Education Union shows that when free meals are provided for every child they are not only a financial lifeline for struggling families and fuel for children’s learning, but also reduce stigma in the lunch hall, improve home-school relations (because worries about dinner money debt evaporate) and encourage good eating habits among children.

Commenting the charity’s finding, CPAG’s Head of Education policy Kate Anstey said: “Classrooms across England are full of children who are hungry or worrying about food. And lunch halls can be a place of stigma for kids who do get a free school meal. Ensuring every child has a free lunch at school is essential to support wellbeing, learning and inclusion. All political parties should fulfil their responsibility to protect children by committing now to universal free school meals.”

In 2021, the Scottish Government announced that it would roll out universal FSM entitlement to all children in primary school and in 2022, the Welsh Government followed suit. Both Governments are in the process of rolling out FSM to all children in primary schools. In addition to these nationwide programmes, the London boroughs of Southwark, Newham, Islington, Westminster and Tower Hamlets offer universal FSM for children in primary schools, with Tower Hamlets recently announcing the rollout of universal FSM in secondary schools also. York Council has recently announced a pilot scheme offering universal FSM, signalling growing support for the policy across the country.

Despite this, school meal entitlement remains variable across the UK, with children receiving different levels of support depending on where they live. In 2023, the mayor of London announced a programme funding FSM entitlement for all primary school pupils in London. This programme is now being delivered and plans are in place to evaluate the outcomes of the programme. Funding for the Mayor’s policy has been guaranteed for two academic years and plans are in place for the continuation of the policy beyond this.

* Read: The Univeral Multiplier: The Impact of Universal Free School Meal Entitlement on Families, Schools and Children here.

* Source: Child Poverty Action Group