Campaigners are fighting to give migrant children free school meals

North East London Migrant Action is holding a picnic to push the Education Secretary to prevent kids missing out on food because of their parent’s immigration status

A Hackney campaign group wants to inspire change in the system which leaves some of England’s poorest school children trying to learn on empty stomachs.

North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) activists are writing “letters for lunch” in support of children denied free school meals because of their parents’ immigration status.

At present the law says children in year 3 and above can only have free school meals if their parents claim benefits which are not accessible to many refugees, asylum seekers or migrants in the UK.

NELMA hopes to make free school meals available to all children who need them, “no matter where they or their parents come from”.

In 2017, around 1.1 million school kids were eligible for free school meals – roughly 14 per cent of all pupils in state schools. The government came under fire earlier this year when it was revealed that Universal Credit’s roll-out would cause 160,000 previously eligible children to miss out on free lunches.

NELMA campaigner Benjamin Morgan said they hope to encourage people to contact the Department of Education about the impact these rules are having on vulnerable families. “In some cases we’re talking about undocumented families. In other cases, they do have leave to remain but have a visa saying that they can’t access public funds.

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“One of the things we are trying to get is a better idea of the number of people that are affected. But one thing is clear: that children in inner-city urban areas, particularly in the West Indian and Afro-Caribbean communities locally, are certainly affected.”

The campaigners, who are working closely with Hackney Migrant Centre, pointed out that schools have been badly hit by austerity measures and limited funding. “That’s why the campaign is also targeting central government and the mayor,” Morgan added. He said children had been observed sharing lunches when some were denied a free meal.

Schoolboy Joel was among those denied free lunches, a situation rectified only once Akwaaba, a local social centre for refugees and asylum seekers, stepped in. He said children at his school would tease and bully him about him not having a meal.

The boy added: “My mum tried to give me packed lunch but she didn’t have enough money to buy food for it”. He said he felt anxious about his mother’s rising debt each time he accepted a meal from his school.

A survey conducted by the Child Poverty Action Group and National Education Union found that 60 per cent of school staff say they have seen a rise in child poverty since 2015.

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, described the situation as “wicked” and said she wanted to help develop “a system that reflects the best of the British people”.

Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville said he wants to work with NELMA to make change locally as well as nationally, adding that “Hackney was built by migrants”. He said he was “disgusted” when he received word from the group about the issue.

NELMA is hosting an event to promote the cause in Stoke Newington on Sunday 29 September featuring music, postcard-making – and a free hot lunch for all attendees

Image: NELMA