Demand for free school meals experiences sharp rise

New data from the Food Foundation has shown an extremely high demand for Free School Meals this Autumn, highlighting the hard-hitting socio-economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis.

Released as part of the joint #EndChildFoodPoverty campaign, the data shows that 29 per cent (equivalent to 2.2 million children) of children aged 8-17 are registered for Free School Meals, with an astounding 42 per cent of these children (900,000) newly registered to the scheme.

The charity also points out that 64 per cent of the newly registered children are from households where the main earners report being in higher income occupations compared to 36 per cent from lower income occupations. A survey in August revealed that 32 per cent of households with children have experienced a drop in income since late March.

A further 21 per cent of children (over one million) aged 8-17, as well as 14 per cent of parents with children not currently on the scheme, said they would like to receive Free School Meals, with eight per cent of children (over 600,000) stating that they were worried about not having enough food for lunch at school this term.

In addition to this, schools are struggling to provide hot lunches, with only 32 per cent of all children aged 8-17 saying they were eating hot meals from the canteen, and shockingly three per cent of children (180,000) saying they skipped lunch entirely. A hot school lunch provides vital sustenance for disadvantaged children, with many relying on it as their main meal in the day.

Along with 20 charities and key names in the food industry, the Food Foundation is urging the government to allocate sufficient budget to the three National Food Strategy recommendations, as part of an urgent recovery package for vulnerable families and their children this Autumn.

These are: eligibility for Free School Meal (FSM) to be expanded to include every child (up to the age of 16) from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits); extend the Holiday Activity and Food Programme (HAF) to all areas in England, so that summer holiday support is available to all children in receipt of Free School Meals; and increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 per week and expand the scheme to every pregnant woman and to all households with children under 4 where a parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefits.

Anna Taylor, executive director of Food Foundation said “A hot school lunch should provide vital sustenance for vulnerable children. Too many children are missing out because their families can’t afford it. Many more are missing out because canteens are not yet fully operational due to Covid-19. Addressing both should be a top priority for the government or the divide between children from wealthy and economically disadvantaged families will widen even further, leaving permanent impacts on children’s lives.”