More than a million teachers, support workers, and others who deal with children have written to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, requesting that all children in households receiving universal credit or similar benefits receive free school meals.
The demand comes after a significant survey conducted by The Food Foundation last month, which indicated that roughly 2.6 million children live in households that miss meals or struggle to acquire healthy food, amounting to 17.2 percent of all households with children.
According to the same report, food insecurity in homes with children has increased by 42% since the start of 2022.
Scotland and Wales’ devolved administrations have pledged to provide free school lunches to all primary school students, as well as more substantial breakfast provisions.
In England, no comparable promise has been made to provide the same possibilities to youngsters. In England, a combined household income of £7,400 before benefits is required to qualify for free school lunches.
According to the Child Poverty Action Group, under the present restricted policy, slightly under two out of every five children living in poverty are ineligible for free school lunches.
This group of approximately a million children also misses out on holiday support in terms of access to the government’s HAF schemes, which include a hot lunch, as well as benefits from the pupil premium, a grant given to schools in England to close the achievement gap for the most disadvantaged students.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that eating healthily as a youngster improves health, academic achievement, and behaviour, as well as increasing lifetime productivity.
Jo Ralling, from The Food Foundation, said: “Government urgently needs to reconsider the threshold used in England for free school meals so more children are protected by this vital safety net.
“Far too many of our most vulnerable families are not receiving the support they need and the situation is now critical with the current cost of living crisis.”
Dr Nick Capstick, Chair of the School Food Review Group and headteacher at a Wiltshire primary school, said: “The ability to thrive and enjoy school should be the fundamental right of every child, but more and more of them are coming to school underfed or undernourished.
“We are also seeing more of our pupils having time away from school because of illness and poor oral hygiene caused by inadequate diet. Schools are increasingly faced with the need to support and often feed young people whose families can no longer afford the right food at home. Universal free schools meals is a simple way of eradicating this situation.”
Stephanie Slater, Founder and Chief Executive at School Food Matters, added: “The new data from The Food Foundation makes grim reading and we know from our own research that far too many families, identified by their schools as needing support, do not qualify for free school meals.”