Three in 10 school-aged children registered for free school meals – survey


Around three in 10 school-aged children have registered for free school meals this autumn, research for food poverty campaigners suggests.

Of these, 42% are newly using the scheme, of which almost two thirds (64%) belong to families with higher income occupations, the Food Foundation said.

Extrapolated to reflect the UK population, this suggests two million children aged 8-17 are registered for free school meals, of which 900,000 are newly-registered.

The Food Foundation said the “extremely high demand” lays bare the socio-economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The charity analysed responses from 1,064 children aged seven to 17 in the UK surveyed by Childwise between September 8 and 20, and 2,309 parents or guardians with children of these ages surveyed between August 24 and September 1.

It found 29% of respondents were registered for free school meals.

Data published in September by the Department for Education shows 17.3% of pupils in England were eligible for free school meals as of January.

A further fifth (21%) of children polled, and 14% of parents with children not currently on the scheme, said they would like to receive free school meals.

Some 8% of the children said they are worried about not having enough food for lunch this term, the research found, while 3% said they were skipping lunch.

The figures have been released as part of the #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY campaign, which has been spearheaded by Marcus Rashford.

The England footballer, who has just been made an MBE for his services to vulnerable children, said: “The numbers recorded here just reinforce the need for urgency in stabilising households.

“This is a pandemic that could leave longer-term devastation than Covid-19. We must act now to protect the next generation and the most vulnerable across the UK.”

The poll of adults found a third (32%) of households with children said they have experienced a drop in income since late March.

Some 42% of those with children aged up to three, and pregnant women, were not aware of the Government’s Healthy Start scheme, which provides vouchers for fruit, vegetables and milk.

Emma Thompson, Ambassador for the Children’s Right2Food Campaign, said: “In the sixth richest economy in the world these figures speak for themselves. There is absolutely no need for any child to go hungry in the UK.

“The fact that they are and in increasing numbers suggests cracks in a broken food system that can and must be repaired as a matter of the utmost urgency.

“Apart from the moral duty we owe to children, this is a severe public health problem.”

The charity is calling for free school meals eligibility to be extended to include every child up to 16 years whose parent or guardian is receiving Universal Credit or the equivalent benefits.

It wants an increase in the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 per week and expansion of the scheme to pregnant women and households in receipt of Universal Credit with children under four.

And it is calling for the Holiday Activity and Food programme to be extended to all areas in England.

A Government spokeswoman said: “We have taken substantial action to make sure children and their families do not go hungry during this pandemic, extending free school meals support to those eligible when schools were partially closed during lockdown, increasing Universal Credit by up to £20 a week, funding councils to provide emergency assistance to families with food, essentials and meals and allocating £63 million to councils who are distributing it to those in need.

“Since the beginning of this term school kitchens have done an outstanding job in providing hot and nutritious free school meals to those who are eligible. With the vast majority of schools now open across the country, many schools have also been providing weekly or daily food boxes to those on free school meals who are self-isolating due to Covid.

“But we know that many families are struggling, which is why we have increased the safety net available to them with more than £9.3 billion extra welfare support, and have supported thousands of young people through our summer Holiday Activities and Food programme.”