Demand for free school meals surges

Almost a million children aged 8-17 have newly registered for free school meals this autumn, with almost two thirds of them from “higher earning” households.

The data, compiled by the Food Foundation through a sample survey by Childwise, showed a total of 2.2 million children (29% of all children aged 8-17) applying for the scheme, 900,000 of them for the first time.

Some 64% of the newly registered children are from households where the main earners report being in higher income occupations; this compares to 36% from lower income occupations.

The research demonstrates how far-reaching the impact of the covid-19 crisis has been for families, with redundancies, loss of income and furlough affecting millions of parents.

A further 21% of children (over 1 million) aged 8-17, as well as 14% of parents with children not currently on the scheme, said they would like to receive free school meals. Pressure is growing on government to extend its scheme.

This week, footballer Marcus Rashford, launched a petition calling on government to implement three recommendations from the national food strategy, including expanding access to free school meals, providing meals and activities during holidays to stop “holiday hunger” and increasing the value of the healthy start vouchers from £3.10 to £4.25 per week.

Deliveroo, Coop and Kraft Heinz are among the companies to have publicly backed the petition, which has already gained 52,000 signatures. Rashford, who has just been awarded an MBE for services to vulnerable children, also fronts the child food poverty taskforce.

The Food Foundation research also showed that low uptake of school meals by children who pay could be hampering efforts to offer hot meals again. Overall, 50% of children reported taking packed lunches. Less than half (45%) of children reported that their canteens were running as usual with social distancing; 8% of children reported their canteens were closed. Research from the University of Leeds has shown that less than 2% of packed lunches meet nutritional standards.

The experiences of caterers taking part in the recent Footprint Responsible Business Recovery Forum mirror these findings. Where packed lunches are on offer demand is down, speakers said. Parents were said to be “fearful”, and so too were school caterers. The impact of the packed lunch has multiple effects, including lower uptake and higher costs; it is also considered “less sustainable”.

There is a desire among caterers to get back to feeding young people with hot food as quickly as possible. “All of us want children to have hot food now – especially as we enter the winter months,” said one speaker at the forum. “We are starting to get stats and case studies we can share.”

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