THE Children’s Society has suggested that 885,000 children are “going hungry” without free school meals and that the pandemic has “made the situation worse”.
On Friday, the charity highlighted the results of a survey last month of 1002 parents of children aged five to 16. The survey had asked them how much they were spending on food each week for their eldest school-age child.
Seventy-one per cent of those surveyed said their children were not receiving free school meals. Forty-two per cent of parents who said they were struggling to make ends meet had spent less on food for their families owing to the lack of free school meals. Twenty-two per cent had borrowed money from friends or relatives, while 17 per cent had delayed their bill payments, they said.
The parents surveyed said that the cost of school meals, combining both lunch and breakfast, could add up to £5.10 per day. This meant that some families could need to spend £1000 on feeding each child each year.
The Government gave families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) temporary access to school-meal vouchers during the pandemic but is planning to halt this at the end of the autumn. The Children’s Society is urging the Government to make the scheme permanent.
Earlier this month, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler (News, 1 October) appealed for free school meals to be given to all families on Universal Credit. The Government, however, plans to provide them only for families on Universal Credit whose earned income is less than £7400 a year.
An open letter signed by 200 children’s authors and illustrators was published on Friday. It condemned the Government’s actions after a Labour motion to extend free school meals during the half-term break — inspired by a campaign led by the footballer Marcus Rashford — was rejected by 322 to 261 in the House of Commons. Signatories included Anne Booth, Philip Pullman, and Matt Haig.
“Regardless of our individual personal backgrounds, political and religious positions, we all recognise the unique position children and their families have been placed in because of this pandemic, and believe that no child in this nation should go hungry this winter,” the letter says.
The Conservative MP for South Dorset, Richard Drax, told the Dorset Echo, however: “The Government believes, and I concur, that the best form of help comes from the welfare system and not through schools — schools are not welfare providers.”
The Consevative MP for Hexham, Guy Opperman, said in a statement: “This Government has actually expanded the eligibility of free school meals to a further 50,000 children, and expanded breakfast-club programmes.”
The chief executive of the Children’s Society, Mark Russell, said that free school meals were sometimes the only healthy meal that disadvantaged children would have in a day.
“No one likes the idea of a child going hungry, but we know that right now there are children across the country who are. We also know that the pandemic has only made the situation worse.
“The current threshold for free school meals is too low: it leaves many hard-working families, who earn just slightly above the cut off, but often still living in poverty, having to find the money to cover their child’s food during the school day.
“Extending free school meals to all families on Universal Credit would make a huge difference. Not only would it relieve some of the immense pressure low-income families face to feed their children; it would help the children themselves. For many disadvantaged pupils, free school meals provide the only healthy, nutritious meal they get each day.
“The Government has the power to make this change. We urge them to act now, to help struggling families and ensure no child is facing the prospect of trying to learn on an empty stomach.”