Charities and school leaders want to see eligibility for free school meals extended after a survey found cash-strapped parents are being forced to cut back on hot school lunches and choose cheaper, less nutritious packed lunches.
Polling of parents across England, carried out by Survation for the school food charity Chefs in Schools, found that 56% of parents are struggling to make ends meet with a third no longer able to afford hot school lunches and 41% providing less nutritious packed lunches for children because of rising food prices.
Over half (58%) feel the current free school meals system, where eligibility varies depending on location and age, is unfair and 83% want to see eligibility expanded.
In London, all primary school children are now entitled to a free school meal following a policy change from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan; however elsewhere in England only families who earn below £7,400 excluding benefits are entitled to free school meals.
In Scotland and Wales, free school meals are being introduced for all children of primary school age, while Northern Ireland’s eligibility threshold is almost twice that of England’s at £14,000.
The School Food Review working group, a coalition of school leaders, local authorities, catering experts and campaigners, said the findings highlighted the urgent need for the UK government to extend eligibility for free school meals to ensure no child goes hungry in school.
The survey found that 62% of parents surveyed would be more likely to vote for a political party which promised to expand free school meals.
“The Chancellor must take action this autumn statement to ensure no child goes hungry at school. We now have growing inequality, where age or location determines whether a child is fed in school. It’s unjustifiable,” said Naomi Duncan, chief executive of Chefs in Schools.
“Eating a meal in school goes beyond immediate hunger, providing powerful fuel for learning too. Yet, parents are struggling to afford hot school meals or nutritious packed lunches. There would be no better investment this government could make in the future, than ensuring access to decent, hot, nutritious, meals in our schools,” Duncan added.
Samantha Palin, head teacher at Woodmansterne School in Lambeth, south London, said the change in entitlement in London had delivered immediate benefits for the health and wellbeing of younger children. “It’s given us an opportunity to encourage good eating habits and build an understanding among the children about how eating that nutritious food makes them feel good for the rest of the day.”
Palin said she was in favour of extending universal free school meal access to secondary pupils in London, adding that “the long-term benefits for the NHS and long-term eating habits of feeding children nutritional food until the age of 18 would be incredibly significant.”