Should free school meals be available to every child? One council is pushing for it

Do you think free school meals should be available to all? (Photo: Shutterstock)Do you think free school meals should be available to all? (Photo: Shutterstock)
Do you think free school meals should be available to all? (Photo: Shutterstock)

School meals could soon be available to all pupils for free, regardless of what their parents earn, under proposed new rules.

At the moment, only pupils from low income backgrounds, including many families on Universal Credit or income support, and those in the first three years of primary school are automatically entitled to free meals.

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Calls for a change

The London Assembly has approved a motion calling for the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to write to the Secretary of State for Education to request that free school meals be extended to all pupils.

In London alone around 400,000 children have “very low food security”, meaning they are at risk of being without access to sufficient amounts of nutritious food, new research has found.

While food banks are on hand to help tackle the problem, just 166,512 Londoners have received assistance from the Trussell Trust, which runs the capital’s food banks, and only 60,000 of them were children.

The work of a number of voluntary organisations in the sector, including the Trussell Trust, Sustain and End Hunger UK, were praised by the Assembly, but members argued more has to be done to ensure children are appropriately fed.

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Assembly Member Fiona Twycross, who proposed the motion, said: "Food insecurity blights the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in our capital, with many forced to go into school hungry and under-nourished.

“In one of the richest cities in the world, this is simply unacceptable.

"Foodbanks and other charities do an incredible job of providing emergency food parcels to those affected by food poverty, but the simple truth is they shouldn't exist in the first place.

Free school meals are typically only offered to families on a low income (Photo: Shutterstock)

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A national roll-out?

While the appeal is being made by the local London government, the Assembly wants Westminster to lead the way in rolling out a new system.

The appeal is unlikely to bring about immediate change to the rules around free school meals, but it is hoped it will help to raise awareness of the issues many school children face, encouraging the Department for Education to look into the matter further.

Twycross added: "Many of the solutions to tackling food insecurity lie in the hands of national Government.

"However, City Hall should also play its role and build the case for extending the provision for universal free school meals."

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Thousands losing out

Free school meals are typically offered to low income families and those who are in receipt of state support.

However, a pupil-led investigation by schools and charity Citizens UK in 2019 found that pupils who are eligible for the benefit are in fact losing out on £65 million per year, due to unused allowances being retained by the meal providers.

It found that in the majority of cases, pupils receiving free school meals who do not use their full allowance by the end of the day, possibly due to absence or attending a lunch time club, have their credit deducted.

This credit is then retained by the company, school, or local authority.

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Luke Bramhall, Children North East, told The Mirror: "This is a national issue.

“From Brighton to Middlesbrough, from Manchester to Scunthorpe, Children North East has spoken to over 65,000 pupils in more than 180 schools across England as part of 'Poverty Proofing the School Day' which identifies barriers to equality of experience in education.

“Across the country we are told about how the money allocated to children on free school meals is taken off them at the end of the day- and that children are going without as a result."

The charity is now calling on the government to refund this allowance to help parents who are struggling to feed their children.