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Almost One Million Children Experiencing Poverty in England Denied Free School Meals

As Mayor of London Sadiq Khan demands universal free school meals for primary school children, Natasha Phillips reports on the impact of the cost of living crisis

Sam. campaigning to extend free school meals.

Almost One Million Children Experiencing Poverty in England Denied Free School Meals

As Mayor of London Sadiq Khan demands universal free school meals for primary school children, Natasha Phillips reports on the impact of the cost of living crisis

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An estimated 800,000 children in England who live under the poverty line are spending the school day feeling hungry and weak because they do not meet the government’s eligibility criteria for free school meals. 

Currently, the government provides free school meals to all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 across the UK. However, children who need free school meals after the age of 7, can only access the meals if their parents or carers qualify for a range of benefits and their family income does not exceed £7,400, after tax. The Government estimated that its threshold, once benefits were included, equated to an overall household income of between £18,000 and £24,000, before tax.

Sam, 16, who received free school meals until his mother got a better-paid job, told Byline Times the policy was too narrow and didn’t take into account the cost-of-living crisis which has seen household bills skyrocket. 

“The increase of money has not been enough to cover the cost of the increase of living and now the added responsibility of school meals,” Sam said. “As the sixth form approached, I was feeling really anxious about getting fed in school, and I felt wrong for having to ask my parents and others for money to get food. We’re the sixth richest economy in the world and nearly one million children feel like this in the UK.” 

While the UK government pledged to review the free school meals scheme in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have already broadened the scope of their free school meals.

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Wales announced last month that it would provide free school lunches to all of the country’s primary school children by 2024. Scotland said in September it was moving forward with plans to provide free school meals to all of its primary school students. Northern Ireland meanwhile, uses a threshold which is almost double that of England, allowing families accessing certain benefits and with net household earnings not exceeding £14,000 per year to get free school meals for their children. 

Speaking to Byline Times, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and UK Labour Party member said, “As the cost-of-living crisis worsens, many will be wondering how they’ll be able to keep putting food on the table. The Government must act now to introduce universal free school meals for all primary school children.”

“This would save families hundreds of pounds a year, ensuring all primary pupils are eating a healthy, nutritious meal at school and also eliminating the stigma associated with being eligible for free school meals, to increase uptake among those who need it most,” Khan added. 

The stigma associated with the way the free school meals policy has been rolled out in England has affected children.

“There was this weird rule at my old primary school, where if you had school dinners you couldn’t sit with the people who had their own lunches,” Brooke, 15, told Byline Times.

“I felt isolated and ‘othered’ seeing my friends all sitting together eating their lunches and I was on my own just because I got free school meals.” 

“A big reason why there is stigma around free school meals is that you’re different, and you worry that you’re going to be judged. I’ve known people who’ve had things said to them. It’s a basic need for food, and people can be mean about it. All it takes is one person to be rude and it makes 10 other people feel scared about saying they’re on free school meals,” Sam said. 

Children in need of free school meals but who are unable to access them have reported feeling anxious, tired at school and unable to concentrate on work. In an attempt to stave off hunger, a growing number of children are forced to eat potentially damaging junk food.   

Access to free school meals for Rizwan, 14, stopped when he reached secondary school. Realising the cost of school meals — which is around £20 a week — was too high, his parents started to make him packed lunches instead. 


“It made me feel really sorry for them because it was during lockdown and people were being furloughed,” Rizwan told Byline Times. “School meals cost parents hundreds of pounds every year, and for low-income families like mine it’s a really big burden.”

“While packed lunches are a lot cheaper, the food is low quality and not as nutritious. I’ve seen a massive difference. I gained a lot of weight and I used to be a really skinny person. The fact that I’m not eligible for free school meals has had a big impact,” Rizwan said. 

Sam, Brooke and Rizwan are now advocating for more free school meals to be made available through the Bite Back 2030 campaign, a movement founded by chef Jamie Oliver to ensure children in the UK have access to healthy, nutritious food throughout their childhoods.

While Labour unveiled plans to offer free breakfasts to every primary school child in England at the Labour Party conference on 28 September, the pledge does not go far enough for Bite Back, which is calling for the 800,000 children in need of free school meals, many of whom are in secondary school, to be fed.

“The cost of living has soared, but the criteria for receiving free school meals has remained hugely restrictive, piling on the pressure for families across England,” James Toop, Chief Executive of Bite Back 2030 told Byline Times. “Children spend 190 days of the year in school, so having access to regular, nutritious food on a daily basis can make a huge difference to their health and futures.The system is just not fair, and the Government needs to take urgent action to support families now.” 


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Bite Back 2030’s latest report, set to be released shortly and which Byline Times has seen, warns that the cost-of-living crisis has placed more children at risk of food poverty. The report highlighted harrowing stories of children going hungry at school, including one pupil pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox and other children saving pennies over several days so they could buy one proper meal a week. 

The benefits of free school meals were also highlighted in the report, in a pilot study of free school meals commissioned by the Department of Education. The pilot held that pupils made between four and eight weeks more progress at school than expected, while also seeing a 23% increase in the number of children eating vegetables at lunchtime. The study noted that the scheme provided a saving of over £400 per family per year.

Free school meals are a lifeline for children like Sam, Rizwan and Brooke. 

“I’ve been on free school meals my whole life. I’m so grateful that I’ve been supported. I feel secure and safe every time I go to school, never having to worry about whether I’ll be able to eat. It gives me a sense of normality,” Brooke said. 

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