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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

Children are learning from home in lockdown and free school meals are still vital in helping them stay healthy.

But more families are struggling to afford enough food to stop their children going hungry, when they would usually rely on free school meals to ensure they got at least one nutritious meal a day.

Around 4.2 million children were living in poverty in 2020, a figure believed to have soared during the Covid-19 crisis as thousands of families were pushed into hardship as a result of pandemic redundancies and income cuts after being placed on the furlough scheme

And the situation is dire, even for many people who do have jobs. Eight in ten people claiming Universal Credit in November were in work or looking for work, according to Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) researchers, and the pandemic has “exacerbated the pre-existing barriers to work as a route out of poverty”.

The role of schools and local government in supporting families  Here are the basics you need to know about the free school meals system across each nation of the UK.

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How are children getting 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, has been distributed to councils from December and another £220m will boost the Holiday Activities and Food Programme in 2021. These are usually council or community-run projects making food and other support available to families in need when schools are closed.

Under current restrictions, schools in England are encouraged to support children using caterers, before providing supermarket vouchers if that is not possible. That means thousands are receiving food parcels to replace the free lunches they would normally receive.

Crucially, the devolved governments have responded to the calls to help children eat when schools are closed. Up to £10m was made available for local authorities in Scotland to continue free school meals during the Christmas, February and Easter breaks, while the Welsh government has committed £11m to extended free school meals over every school holiday until Easter this year. 

Families in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are being 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 have called for this approach to be rolled out across England instead of food deliveries.

“What’s needed are cash grants paid directly to people as well as rapid improvements to the social security system and wage increases,” Independent Food Aid Network coordinator Sabine Goodwin said. “Cash grants administered by local authorities now would support dignity, choice and the reduction in risk of Covid-19 infection.”

Who qualifies 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.

Is the free school meals scheme working?

People across the country are furious after photos of frugal food deliveries circulated online. Some showed portions of food handed out in money bags and pieces of vegetables rather than whole ones.

One mum posted a picture of the parcel she received for her child, designed to replace £30 in supermarket vouchers. It was to last ten days across two weeks. She priced the contents at £5.22 in total.

It was a food parcel put together by Chartwell, a private company contracted by the Department for Education to provide free school meal replacements. The company responded saying the parcel contents did not meet its standards, and it would investigate.

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.

But earlier this year, Child Poverty Action Group found that more than half of children in Wales living below the UK poverty line are not entitled to free lunches because their parents are in low-paid jobs which take them over the eligibility threshold.

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 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.

How many children get free school meals?

Roughly 1.3 million children in England claimed free school lunches last year. This is roughly equivalent to around 15 per cent of pupils in state schools. The Food Foundation estimated that another 900,000 kids newly registered for school meals since the Covid-19 crisis hit the UK.

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

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

The Government will also raise the value of Healthy Start vouchers from £3.10 to £4.25 per week  in 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. Meanwhile nearly a million children signing up for free lunches for the first time in 2020.

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.