The SNP pledged to give free school meals to all primary school pupils if reelected in May’s election. All remaining primary school children, in P6 and P7, will be entitled to free school meals by August 2022 at the earliest, according to a Holyrood statement.
More than 146,200 primary school aged children in Scotland are eligible for free lunches under current rules, though there is significant discrepancy between who is eligible and who claims them, with only 40,000 kids registered for free school meals in 2018.
The announcement was welcomed by anti-poverty campaigners including the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, who said it was “good news for thousands of children living in poverty but not currently getting a free school meal.
“For hard pressed families the cost of school lunches can be a huge financial burden,” a spokesperson said. “[The] universal approach increases take up, and boosts health and education.”
The Scottish government also committed to rolling out targeted food support for primary and secondary pupils in low-income families during school holidays, starting in July and supporting an estimated 145,000 children.
Each local authority will decide on what kind of support should be provided in its area, likely choosing between giving families cash payments, food parcels or supermarket vouchers.
“Councils across Scotland have long been committed to delivering healthy free school meals to eligible children and young people,” said Councillor Stephen McCabe, from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. “We are pleased that this commitment can be further expanded upon.
“Local authorities will continue to work hard to ensure that children and young people have access to healthy and nourishing meals so that they are fully able to learn, play, and engage with their peers and communities.”
Free school meals are also available to older children in Scotland if they or their families receive one of the mainstream benefits, such as universal credit or income support, or if their family’s immigrations status means they have no recourse to public funds and are facing hardship.
Children at state schools in England can currently claim free school meals regardless of their family’s income if they are in reception, year one or year two, with similar rules in Wales.
Campaigners including Marcus Rashford have long called for free school meals provision across Britain to be extended, in particular to all children whose families claim universal credit. In all three nations, a family’s income – if they receive universal credit – must be below roughly £7,400 per year if their older child is to access free school meals.
The strict eligibility criteria could be blocking two in five children living in poverty from getting free lunches, Child Poverty Action Group research showed.