Children are facing a hunger crisis – the government needs to act by providing more free school meals

The Prime Minister must extend free school meals to all children in poverty and end the hunger crisis that is damaging their life chances, The independent requirements today.

We have partnered with a coalition of campaigning organizations coordinated by the Food Foundation, the charity that teamed up with footballer Marcus Rashford to successfully pressure the government to feed hungry pupils during the school holidays during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our joint campaign, Feed the Future, is calling on Liz Truss to extend free school meals to the 800,000 children in England who live in households on Universal Credit – but are ineligible because their household income, excluding benefits, is over £7,400 a year. This extremely low threshold applies regardless of the number of children in the family and causes real problems for families struggling with the cost of living crisis.

We have previously reported how this led to increasingly desperate behavior by some children and mothers who have stolen to stave off starvation.

Today we can exclusively reveal that:

  • A new study by accountancy firm PwC shows that the costs of extending free school meals to all school children in poverty are far outweighed by the benefits, with PwC reporting a net benefit of £2.45 billion over 20 years; and
  • 72 per cent of people in England support the extension of free school meals to all children on universal credit, according to a poll by You Gov.

The PwC analysis, commissioned by Impact on Urban Health, shows that the cost of providing free school meals to all children in poverty in England would be a further £477 million in the first year, then fall to £210 million over 20 years. But these total costs of £6.44 billion over two decades would lead to benefits of £8.9 billion – resulting in a net benefit of £2.45 billion. PwC collated the positive effects that come from educational attainment, mental and physical health effects and productivity improvements and reported that for every £1 invested by the government, £1.38 would be returned.

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Kieron Boyle, chief executive of Impact on Urban Health, said: “This analysis provides more than the necessary evidence for a transformational policy shift in school meals.”

Anna Taylor, chief executive of the Food Foundation, said: “The Government can deliver on its leveling promise by making a long-term commitment to free school meals for all school children, but this winter the focus should be on protecting low-income children who face extreme pressure on the cost of living by ensuring they get a hot, nutritious meal for lunch. The Government should immediately prioritize the introduction of free school meals for the 800,000 children living in poverty who currently do not qualify.”

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Other organizations that have signed up to the Feed the Future campaign include School Food Matters, Chefs in Schools, Bite Back 2030, Sustain, Child Poverty Action Group, Impact on Urban Health, National Education Union and Jamie Oliver Ltd.

The 800,000 children who miss out on free school meals make up 30 percent of all school-age children living in poverty. Currently, 1.9 million children in England are eligible for free school meals (costing the government £2.47 per meal), including all pupils from Reception to Year 2, but beyond that the restrictive threshold applies.

Currently, England is lagging behind the rest of the UK. Wales and Scotland have announced plans to provide universal free school lunches to all primary school children, while Northern Ireland has almost doubled the income threshold after which families are no longer eligible – to £14,000. London’s children face a postcode lottery with four boroughs, Islington, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Southwark offering universal free school meals to all primary school children, but pupils in the other 28 boroughs are exposed.

Marc Thompson, associate headteacher at Mandeville Primary School, LOndon, with pupils at lunchtime

(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

School leaders have told us of their heartache and alarm at this vulnerable group of pupils, for whom the cost of living has meant a depleted packed lunch or no packed lunch at all. Here, three school leaders from across the country talk about what they see in their schools and why they support our call to extend free school meals to all children in poverty.

‘Free school meals should be a human right, not a benefit’

Louise Nicholsexecutive headteacher of an association of primary schools in Hackney, East London

Mandeville Primary and Kingsmead Primary, Hackney

Pupils: 370 and 240

Free school meals: 62 percent / 58 percent

Pupils in poverty, but not on free school meals: 38 percent / 42 percent

“We have two schools within a few kilometers of each other, both with a similar poverty profile, but in one, Mandeville Primary, we provide universal free school meals, while in the other, Kingsmead Primary, we do not. This is because Mandeville is in on the border with Islington, one of four London boroughs that offer universal free school meals to all primary school children, and we need to give them a similar offer to compete for pupils. It costs us £15,000 a year to provide free school meals for the other 38 per cent in Mandeville, and this is overseen by our associate manager Marc Thompson, but at Kingsmead, with the financial pressures we’re under, we can’t afford it.

“So I have to admit that things are deeply unfair, because if you’re a Mandeville kid you’re decently fed, but if you’re a Kingsmead kid, some of you go hungry and your education suffers. These are kids, whose parents mostly work hard in low-income jobs, such as hospital porters, cleaners, kitchen staff and security guards – many of them on zero-hours contracts Many of these children start the day without a proper breakfast, and then it’s a long time until lunch, and if they don’t eat lunch or just have a meager lunch, they absolutely cannot handle it.

“Your campaign to extend free school meals to all children in poverty is desperately needed. In this country we provide free education to all children and yet somehow they think food is different. Free school meals must be seen as a human right , not a human right. advantage.”

‘We have children who break down and cry because of hunger’

Nicholas Capstickclass teacher

Ran Primary School, Swindon

Pupils: 800

Free school meals: 29 per cent

Pupils in poverty, but not on free school meals: 54 per cent

“Just over half of our students do not receive free school meals but would be defined as living in poverty. Many come to school hungry and as the day progresses, become distracted and unable to concentrate because all they think about is food. These children typically bring a packed lunch, but what is inside is completely inadequate. We see packed lunches with stale potato chips from the night before covered in congealed ketchup or cold leftover pasta. We have children who turn their faces to the wall at lunchtime to hide their mouths because they are so ashamed and don’t want their peers to see what’s in their packed lunch.

“We run a tuck shop during the break twice a week, and some children come and empty their copper on the counter to chip together DKK 20 for a piece of fruit. They get worried because they can’t afford more. We have children who break down and cry because of hunger Birthdays are another flash point with students being embarrassed and upset because they can’t afford treats for their friends The effects are profound It’s hard to do academics or do physical exercise , when you’re hungry We’ve also seen an increase in bad teeth and a decrease in dental hygiene and a big increase in obesity.

“I support your call for free school meals for all children whose parents are on universal credit. Children get free stationery and textbooks, they are not means tested so why not food? The government talks about ‘upgrading’ but what can be more important than making sure our children are fed?”

‘Government ministers should ask themselves: what do you want for your child?’

Sarah Beveridgeclass teacher,

Leyburn Primary, North Yorkshire

Pupils: 200

Free school meals: 11 per cent

Pupils in poverty, but not on free school meals: 15 per cent

“We don’t have many children on free school meals, but we have a large number of parents who are struggling with their household bills and won’t admit that they’re not well because of pride – but that they can’t fund school trips or updating school uniforms are check marks I am concerned about about 30 of our students who do not get free school meals but whose parents are struggling during the cost of living crisis.

“These children come in with very meager packed lunches, which may consist of a biscuit and a crushed banana, which are completely inadequate. They get very tired in the afternoon. Sometimes children will even take food out of other children’s packed lunches when they are doesn’t look. Actual theft. We don’t have a breakfast club anymore and teachers tell me regularly that there are kids who don’t have enough to eat. For parents in urban areas cheap food is easier to access but we are rural Yorkshire Dales – Rishi Sunak’s constituency – and where the cost of produce is higher due to transport costs.

“Children face high expectations academically but can’t do it on an empty stomach. That’s why I support the call for free school meals for all children in families on universal credit. Government ministers should ask themselves: what would you want for your child? It’s shocking that at this point in history we have to campaign to end hunger in schools. We live in one of the most privileged countries in the world. I can’t get my head around it.”

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