Almost 900,000 children are living in a family where parents, who do not receive free school meals, are struggling to cover the costs of feeding their children during a school day.
According to new research by The Children’s Society, 42% of these families have had to reduce their weekly food shop to meet the expense, with 22% having borrowed money from friends and 17% having delayed paying bills.
Azmina Siddique, Policy and Research Manager at the Children’s Society, believes the government should increase free school meal eligibility to all children whose families receive Universal Credit.
“Currently, there are income thresholds for who can receive free school meals. If you're on some form of benefit, like Universal Credit, your family income needs to be £7,400 or less a year. It's not a very high threshold. If you earn any more than that you don't actually get free school meal support. There are families who are still from very low-income backgrounds who are missing out.”
Last week, Conservative MPs rejected a parliamentary motion to extend free school meals during upcoming school holidays. Normally, such support is not provided during holiday periods but because of the pandemic, the government had extended the provision over the Easter and summer breaks.
“The recent [parliament vote] was around extending a short-term provision to children over half term and the Christmas holidays. We're very much in favour of that," Saddique said.
“But we are really asking to make that extension permanent because these children really need that support right now, they don't need a review, they need the free school meal provision.”
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, there were about 1.3 million children on free school meals, a small fraction of the 12 million children who live in the UK.
For Azmina Siddique, the main objective is to ensure a level playing field at school for all children.
“We're not talking about giving every child free school meals. We're talking about giving children who are really the most in need a chance to learn on par with their peers and not be going hungry.”