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Free school meals: Everything you need to know

We outline free school meals eligibility, how much it costs, how children can access them, and how lockdown has affected kids' school lunches

A spotlight has been fixed on the UK’s free school meals system during the pandemic. A series of scandals, a patchy voucher scheme and last minute government U-turns while schools were closed in lockdown have meant many children across the country have, at times, gone without knowing where their next meal could come from.

Schools reopened, but soaring poverty means record numbers are still relying on the free school meals scheme to guarantee a hot, nutritious meal for them five days a week.

Child poverty hit a record high shortly before the Covid-19 crisis, rising by 200,000 kids – or 15 per cent – to 4.3 million over all, before more families were pushed into hardship by pandemic-driven redundancies, income cuts and increasing living costs.

And the situation is dire, even for many people who do have jobs. As many as 3.2 million children in poverty before Covid-19 hit the UK – three quarters of those whose families were facing financial hardship – lived in households with at least one working adult. 

The free school meals scheme is crucial in the fight to stop children going hungry. Here are the basics you need to know about the system across each nation of the UK.

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How many children get free school meals?

Demand for free school meals soared in lockdown, with Government figures showing nearly 302,400 more kids qualified for free food between March 2020 and 2021.

Nearly 20 per cent of England’s state school pupils – 1.63 million out of 8.2 million in total – now receive free school meals. Demand is highest in the North East, where around 26 per cent of children  – more than 103,000 – qualified for free school meals during lockdown, compared to just 15 per cent in the South East.

More than 146,200 primary school aged children in Scotland are eligible for free school meals, though there is significant discrepancy between who is eligible and who claims them, with only 40,000 kids registered for free school meals in 2018.

Meanwhile more than 75,000 children across Wales – aged between five and 15 – are eligible for free lunches.

How much do free school meals cost?

Westminster pays a flat rate of £2.30 for every child per meal in England who claims free school meals. This figure which has not risen in several years despite inflating food costs. It costs the Government around £20 million a week.

The cost varies between councils in Scotland, averaging at £2.15 each and most expensive in Aberdeenshire at £2.50. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, school meals cost £2.70 each.

Free meals can sometimes cost schools money, because the funding the Government supplies is often less than what they need to provide food for everyone who needs it, so they are subsidised by the school’s own budget. But the Covid-19 funding for free school meal coverage pledged by devolved governments is likely to mitigate that cost for schools for the foreseeable future.

Who is eligible for free school meals?

Free schools meals are available to young children and slightly older children in state schools whose families are on low incomes or who receive benefits themselves.

These meals are usually only available in term time, however. And funding for holiday food and activity clubs has historically varied between local authorities. Food insecurity researcher Professor Greta Defeyter previously told The Big Issue that kids faced a “postcode lottery” when trying to access holiday clubs, which in some cases could provide their only guaranteed meal of the day.

Across England and Wales, children can receive free lunches (and sometimes milk) if their parents or guardians claim:

  • Income support
  • Income-based jobseeker’s allowance
  • State pension guarantee credit
  • Income-related employment and support allowance
  • Child tax credit, as long as they don’t also receive working tax credit and earn no more than £16,190 (£16,105 in Scotland)
  • Working tax credit four week ‘run-on’ after stopping work
  • support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 
  • Universal Credit, if someone applied since April 2018 and their income is less than £7,400 a year after tax and not including benefits. (This threshold is different in Scotland and Northern Ireland.) If someone applied for UC before then, there is no income threshold

Children who receive any of these benefits themselves are also eligible for school lunches.

Note that if a parent or guardian’s income rises above the local threshold, their child will still be entitled to free meals until March 2022 — as long as they continue to claim Universal Credit. But the April 2018 cut-off means there could be variation in entitlement between siblings.

Campaigners have warned free school meals eligibility is too strict. Child Poverty Action Group research has shown two in five children living in poverty prior to the pandemic were not eligible for free school meals.

Marcus Rashford, working on behalf of his Child Food Poverty Taskforce, previously wrote to the Prime Minister demanding free school meals be extended to all children whose families receive Universal Credit, regardless of income.

How does free school meals eligibility vary in different parts of the UK?

In England, all pupils in reception, Year 1 or Year 2 receive free meals automatically. In Scotland, this applies to children in funded early learning, funded childcare and primary years 1-3. Similarly in Wales, young children attending nursery for full days or young people attending sixth form could also qualify.

The rules for eligibility according to benefits claimed apply in Scotland too. However you can also apply for free school meals for your child if you receive child tax credit and working tax credit and your income is less than £7,330. The household threshold for Universal Credit claimants is £610 a month.

In Northern Ireland, that threshold is £14,000 a year. Someone can also claim school lunches if their child has special educational needs and requires a special diet, or if they board at a special school.

In some areas, different kinds of financial hardship – like having no recourse to public funds because of immigration status or experiencing the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment – mean a child might still get a free meal at school. This could also apply if a child has been looked after, had a Kinship Care Order or had a Guardianship Order since they were aged 2. 

How did children get free school meals in lockdown?

When much of England entered stricter lockdown in December, ministers were forced to act and a new £400m fund was ringfenced to support struggling children and families through the winter. The Covid Winter Grant Scheme, worth £170m, was distributed to councils from December 2020 with another £220m promised to boost the Holiday Activities and Food Programme this year. These are usually council or community-run projects making food and other support available to families in need when schools are closed.

Families in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were offered supermarket vouchers and direct cash payments to cover the costs of what would normally be free school meals, letting them cater for their children’s needs. 

Campaigners called for this approach to be rolled out across England where, in lockdown, schools were encouraged to support children using caterers, before providing supermarket vouchers if that was not possible. That meant thousands were receiving food parcels to replace the free lunches they would normally receive.

People across the country were furious after photos of frugal food deliveries for children triggered widespread outcry, and the Government eventually extended the voucher scheme to more English schools.

But the scheme closed in early March, and the Government said it would not be revived for future school closures, including the Easter holiday, instead funding holiday food and activity clubs to support local communities as the pandemic continued to impact families’ finances.

What else is the Government doing to help families in need?

The Government is raising the value of Healthy Start vouchers from £3.10 to £4.25 per week this April. This is designed to help disadvantaged families afford fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile £16m will go to food distribution charities across the country. 

The increase to Healthy Start vouchers value increase was a win for Marcus Rashford’s child food poverty taskforce. It called for the boost in a series of asks put to government to stop children going hungry. But a number of supermarkets have acted quicker than the Government

Lidl and Tesco raised the value of the vouchers by £1 this winter, increasing what parents can buy. Iceland started offering free £1 pack of frozen vegetables to all families using Healthy Start.

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The Government publicises the scheme poorly, campaigners say, meaning only around half of eligible families use it. 

And Covid-19 poverty is expected to continue hammering families already struggling to get by. Women were more likely to be made redundant during the pandemic, JRF figures showed, largely due to childcare responsibilities. More women than men were forced to swap paid work for unpaid caring duties in lockdown, and children being home from school makes it harder for them to get to better paid, more secure jobs.

But the new measures do not meet Rashford’s Child Food Poverty Task Force’s primary demand: to extend free school meals to all children whose families receive Universal Credit, regardless of income.

When were free school meals first introduced?

Free school meals have a lengthy history in the UK. The Education Act in 1906 allowed councils to provide food to pupils, but they rarely did. Only in 1944 was it legislated that they must give good quality, free meals to children. This was shortly followed by a similar ruling for free milk in 1946.

The Conservative government, under Margaret Thatcher, ended the free milk provided for all children. Her government also retracted nutrition requirements for school lunches. It triggered a downturn in the quality of food children from worse-off backgrounds had access to.

Finally in 2001, school meals were once again held to national nutritional standards.

How do I apply for free school meals?

In most areas people can apply through their local authority’s website. Find out more information on how to apply in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.