Expanding free school meals is essential to help families cope with the cost of living crisis

Every child in households receiving Universal Credit should be guaranteed free school meals

Children eating a meal in a school canteen

No child should have to go hungry, but that is the reality facing many children in the UK right now, with families struggling to afford food because of factors completely beyond their control. The cost-of-living crisis has brought significant increases in food prices as well as in other areas – most notably energy bills – putting further pressure on food budgets. Many households are simply unable to cover the cost of the essentials.  

Research by The Food Foundation found that in September 2022 a shocking four million children were living in households experiencing food insecurity. That means they’ve had to cut back on the amount of food they eat or in some cases go whole days without eating. More households are affected now than during the height of the Covid pandemic and the problem has worsened in recent months with this food insecurity doubling since the start of the year.

Food prices are predicted to continue rising and increased spending on energy bills will be required to stay warm during the winter. Without urgent intervention even more families will fall into food insecurity.

Lack of access to good food and proper nutrition during childhood can have a devastating effect on children’s educational attainment, physical and mental health, and social wellbeing – all of which have lifelong consequences. Children must not be left in this precarious situation.

Expanding the Free School Meals (FSM) scheme is an intervention that could be quickly implemented to help ease the problem. Free School Meals offer a vital safety net to children from low-income families but families must currently be extremely deprived to qualify for them – a household has to earn less than £7400 per year after benefits to meet the criteria. This leaves 800,000 children in England who are living in poverty but denied access to Free School Meals. Expanding the scheme to all children in households on Universal Credit would be an effective way to target support at those in need and ease the burden on families struggling to make ends meet.

Schools are reporting seeing children pretending to eat out of empty lunchboxes and hiding in the playground because they can’t afford lunch. Some are even desperate enough to steal from school canteens. Food insecurity also puts parent through huge amounts of anxiety, not knowing if they’re going to be able to put food on the table for their children. Parents do everything in their power to protect their children in that situation, often going without food themselves. Knowing their child will get one decent meal a day at school does much to relieve that stress.

Regardless of the moral argument that children shouldn’t be forced to go hungry, there are important economic reasons to extend Free School Meals. The cost of expanding the scheme to more children is often given as a reason against doing so but recent analysis has demonstrated that this argument is unfounded. The expansion of FSM provision will actually deliver economic benefits. The analysis estimates that for every £1 invested in expanding FSM, £1.37 is delivered in benefits, in terms of savings for families, educational achieved and better health.

Children who are hungry can’t learn. Ensuring children are well-fed at school enables them to concentrate better in class, improves their academic performance and lifelong chances. The expansion of Free School Meals has been strongly supported by the education sector with representatives of over one million teachers; school and trust leaders, support staff, and governors and trustees in the nation’s 24,400 schools writing to Government to call for this measure to be implemented.

Importantly, school meals not only provide food but provide nourishing food that will give children’s bodies the nutrients they need to be healthy. The cheapest calories are often the unhealthiest – forcing people to cut back on foods like fruit and vegetables and rely on cheap, processed food which leads to long term health problems. Obesity and diet-related disease are too common in the UK and place a huge burden on our health services. Instead of putting financial resources into treating these preventable conditions, investment should be made into policies that will avert their development – such as Free School Meals.

The wider benefits of providing Free School Meals to more children are clear and are generally recognised by the public with 72% supporting the move to expand FSM to all children on Universal Credit. This is why the Feed the Future campaign is urgently calling for the expansion of the Free School Meals scheme to all children in households receiving Universal Credit to guarantee all children living in poverty a healthy, hot lunch at school.

Shona Goudie policy research manager at The Food Foundation

Image credit: Yan Krukov – Creative Commons

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