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One million children struggling to cover school food costs in the UK

This news post is about 1 year old

Stark warning as pandemic tightens grip on economy

Almost one million children could be living in a household struggling to cover school food costs in the UK.

An estimated 885,000 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.

Of those parents surveyed who struggle, and do not receive free school meals, around 42% (four in ten) revealed they have had to cut down on their own or their families food shop to meet the expense, 22% one in five have borrowed money from friends and family and one in six (17%) have delayed paying bills.

The charity surveyed 1,002 parents to find out roughly how much they were spending each week on breakfast, lunch, snacks and other items for their eldest school age child. This revealed around 71% of parent’s surveyed children do not receive free school meals. The average costs came to almost £22 a week, meaning some parents could be spending over £830 per child per year.

The survey established that parents surveyed spent on average almost £12 each week on school meals – which could be a mix of school dinners and packed lunches. Parents surveyed also spent around £3.40 on breakfast, £3.60 on snacks and a further £2.70 on other items each week.

Mark Russell, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: “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.”

The charity also looked at the price of school dinners across the country. Amongst the school prices we found online, meal deals, including a hot meal and a dessert cost an average of between £2.30 and £2.50. If children also bought a bottle of water, on average about 60- 80p, a snack, such as a cake or cookie, again around 60-80p and a breakfast which was on average £1, parents could be spending up to £5.10 a day. If a child had this five days a week, it could cost around £25 per week, which comes to nearly £1,000 per child per year.

The survey also asked what other school expenses caused parents to worry. Of those not receiving free school meals, one third (33%) responded that they were either very or somewhat worried about covering the cost of school trips, while 28% said paying for uniforms left them feeling either very or somewhat worried.

Once the new system is fully rolled out, only families on Universal Credit who earn less than £7,400 a year will be eligible for Free School Meals[3]. Under the National Food Strategy recommendation, an estimated additional 1.5 million 7-16 year olds in lower income working families would benefit from Free School Meals, taking the total number of children with the guarantee of a decent meal every day to 2.6 million.

The Children’s Society is also calling on the government to permanently extend the provision of free school meals to children living in households where parents are subject to no recourse to public funds (NRPF).

During the pandemic, parents effected by NRPF were given temporary access to free school meal vouchers. The Department for Education then extended the provision of meals for children in school, but only till the end of the autumn term 2020. The Children’s Society wants to see the provision rolled out permanently.

Many children from low income migrant families are living in poverty, it is vital they are given the same right to free school meals, regardless of their parents’ immigration status. 

One family, whose children go to a school that provides free school meals to low income migrant families said it makes a huge difference and she’s not sure how she would cope without it.



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