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Social Justice

Free school meals: Everything you need to know

We outline free school meals eligibility, how much it costs, how children can access them, and how lockdown has affected kids’ school lunches

The soaring price of food is a major concern for Brits as the cost of living crisis pushes thousands of families into poverty. Campaigners are continuing to urge the  government to expand its free school meals scheme to stop more children going hungry this summer.

One in six people in the UK used a food bank in March this year, according to statistics from the Food Standards Agency. By comparison, one in 10 relied on food banks last year. 

During the pandemic, a spotlight was fixed on the UK’s free school meals system. A series of scandals, a patchy voucher scheme and last minute government U-turns while schools were closed in lockdown meant many children across the country have, at times, gone without knowing where their next meal could come from. Demand for free school meals continues to soar and record numbers are still relying on the scheme for a guaranteed hot, nutritious meal five days a week.

The free school meals scheme is crucial in the fight to stop children going hungry, and the demand for them doesn’t go away when schools close for the summer holidays. Here are the basics you need to know about the system across each nation of the UK.

How many children get free school meals?

Just under 1.9 million children are eligible for free school meals in England, according to the latest government figures. This is 22.5 per cent of state school pupils.

It is an increase of nearly 160,000 pupils since January 2021, when 1.74 million (20.8 per cent) of students were eligible for free school meals.

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Demand is highest in the North East, where around 29.1 per cent of children currently qualify for free school meals, compared to just 17.6  per cent in the South East.

Governments in Scotland and Wales have recently committed to offering free school meal provision to all primary school pupils. 

Child poverty hit a record high shortly before the Covid-19 crisis, rising by 200,000 kids – or 15 per cent – to 4.3 million over all.

Demand for food aid among children soared during lockdown, and it continues to rise at a concerning rate now. The Trussell Trust gave out 2.1 million emergency food parcels between April 2021 and March 2022, an increase of 14 per cent compared to the same period between 2019 and 2020. A total of 832,000 of these parcels went to children.

How much do free school meals cost?

The government has announced it is increasing the funding rate for universal infant free school meals. But it is only increasing funding only by 7p per pupil – from £2.34 to £2.41 per meal for children in reception, year 1 and year 2. 

It comes amid outcry that the government is not doing enough to expand the free school meals scheme. Henry Dimbleby, the lead adviser on the government’s national food strategy, recommended free school meals be extended to all children under 16 living in households earning less than £20,000. 

This would have cost £544 million a year and would have meant feeding an additional 1.1 million children. But the government has ignored this recommendation. Green MP Caroline Lucas described the strategy as an “unforgivably wasted opportunity”.

Who is eligible for free school meals?

Free school meals are available to young children and slightly older children in state schools whose families are on low incomes or who receive benefits themselves.

These meals are usually only available in term time, however. 

Across England and Wales, children can receive free lunches (and sometimes milk) if their parents or guardians claim:

  • Income support
  • Income-based jobseeker’s allowance
  • State pension guarantee credit
  • Income-related employment and support allowance
  • Child tax credit, as long as they don’t also receive working tax credit and earn no more than £16,190 (£16,105 in Scotland)
  • Working tax credit four week ‘run-on’ after stopping work
  • support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 
  • Universal credit, if someone applied since April 2018 and their income is less than £7,400 a year after tax and not including benefits. (This threshold is different in Scotland and Northern Ireland.) If someone applied for UC before then, there is no income threshold

Children who receive any of these benefits themselves are also eligible for school lunches.

Campaigners have warned free school meals eligibility is too strict. Child Poverty Action Group research has shown two in five children living in poverty prior to the pandemic were not eligible for free school meals.

Marcus Rashford, working on behalf of his Child Food Poverty Taskforce, previously wrote to the Prime Minister demanding free school meals be extended to all children whose families receive universal credit, regardless of income.

He led the taskforce in calling for the holiday school meals scheme – which saw vouchers and parcels given to eligible children when schools were closed during the pandemic – to be extended for another three years. Making free lunches and the Healthy Start milk and veg scheme available during holidays would cost around £1.1bn, they estimated, roughly one per cent of the current education budget.

“Equality of opportunity” begins with guaranteeing children can eat well “at least once a day”, the joint letter read.

“Better jobs are the route out of poverty, and the virtue of these children’s food schemes is that when working families shore up their income they can buy school and holiday meals themselves.”

But Chancellor Rishi Sunak rejected the calls ahead of the autumn budget in October. He said that furlough ending at the start of the month meant other support schemes, including free school meals provision outside of term time, should end too. Families can rely on holiday and activities clubs instead, Sunak added.

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How does free school meals eligibility vary in different parts of the UK?

The Welsh Government has committed to offering every primary school pupil a free school meal by 2024. Children in reception class are set to receive free school meals from September. By April 2023, the majority of children in years 1 and 2 will also receive free meals.

In a similar move, the Scottish Government has announced that free school lunches will be offered for primary 4 and 5 children. There will also be targeted support during school holidays for all eligible primary and secondary children and young people.This will start in July for around 145,000 primary and secondary children and young people from low income households.

In Scotland,children in funded early learning, funded childcare and primary years 1 to 3 currently receive free school meals automatically. In England, this applies to all pupils in reception, Year 1 and Year 2. . Similarly in Wales, young children attending nursery for full days or young people attending sixth form could also qualify.

The rules for eligibility according to benefits claimed apply in Scotland too. However you can also apply for free school meals for your child if you receive child tax credit and working tax credit and your income is less than £7,500. The household threshold for universal credit claimants is £625 a month.

In Northern Ireland, that threshold is £14,000 a year. Someone can also claim school lunches if their child has special educational needs and requires a special diet, or if they board at a special school.

In some areas, different kinds of financial hardship – like having no recourse to public funds because of immigration status or experiencing the five-week wait for a first universal credit payment – mean a child might still get a free meal at school. This could also apply if a child has been looked after, had a Kinship Care Order or had a Guardianship Order since they were aged 2. 

How did children get free school meals in lockdown?

When much of England entered stricter lockdown in December, ministers were forced to act and a new £400m fund was ringfenced to support struggling children and families through the winter. The Covid Winter Grant Scheme, worth £170m, was distributed to councils from December 2020 with another £220m promised to boost the Holiday Activities and Food Programme this year. These are usually council or community-run projects making food and other support available to families in need when schools are closed.

Families in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were offered supermarket vouchers and direct cash payments to cover the costs of what would normally be free school meals, letting them cater for their children’s needs. 

Campaigners called for this approach to be rolled out across England where, in lockdown, schools were encouraged to support children using caterers, before providing supermarket vouchers if that was not possible. That meant thousands were receiving food parcels to replace the free lunches they would normally receive.

People across the country were furious after photos of frugal food deliveries for children triggered widespread outcry, and the Government eventually extended the voucher scheme to more English schools.

When were free school meals first introduced?

Free school meals have a lengthy history in the UK. The Education Act in 1906 allowed councils to provide food to pupils, but they rarely did. Only in 1944 was it legislated that they must give good quality, free meals to children. This was shortly followed by a similar ruling for free milk in 1946.

The Conservative government, under Margaret Thatcher, ended the free milk provided for all children. Her government also retracted nutrition requirements for school lunches. It triggered a downturn in the quality of food children from worse-off backgrounds had access to.

Finally in 2001, school meals were once again held to national nutritional standards.

Will free school meals be offered in the summer holidays? 

In 2020, the government directly funded vouchers and food packages due to the pandemic but that scheme will not be going ahead again this year. Last year, the government allocated £220m for local councils to offer free holiday clubs. 

The Holiday Activities and Food Programme provided healthy food options and physical activity and is set to go ahead again this year. Over 600,000 children attended HAF clubs last summer.

How do I apply for free school meals?

In most areas people can apply through their local authority’s website. Find out more information on how to apply in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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