As the worsening cost of living crisis unfolds, the restrictive eligibility criteria for free school meals (FSM) are still meaning millions of children are missing out. Representatives of teachers, school leaders, support staff, governors and trustees from across the nation’s 24,400 schools have today written to the HM Treasury and the Department for Education. In their letter, they ask government ministers to provide school meals for all children but, as an immediate step, extend FSM to children from households in receipt of universal credit.
Data from the Food Foundation show the amount of people who can’t access enough, nutritious food has risen by 57% since January. There are now 2.6 million children living in households where this is a problem. The Child Poverty Action Group estimate two in five children living in poverty are not eligible for a free school meal.
Not only do the criteria mean children miss out on a guaranteed hot, healthy meal at lunch, FSM eligibility is also used as a proxy for other support mechanisms. This means provisions such as the Holiday Activities and Food programmes and pupil premium funding are also withheld.
For years now, experts have been calling for school meals to be provided for all students. Universal provision can improve children’s health, attainment, behaviour and even lifetime productivity. The government’s own evaluation found that providing universal infant free school meals was a relatively inexpensive investment: saving families time and money and boosting economies of scale in school food.
The growing body of evidence for the benefits of extending free school meals is being heard across England’s borders. Wales and Scotland have both committed to providing FSM to all children in primary school, as well as additional breakfast provision. Northern Ireland also has more generous eligibility criteria. In a time of Levelling Up, it seems the UK government is holding back English children.
We join the calls of the education workforce, along with all members of the School Food Review working group, for the government to extend this vital nutritional safety net and start properly investing in the next generation.
You can read the letter here.