Politics

Expand free school meals and help save one million children from hunger, political leaders told

'Poverty is wearing away at body and soul – we may well have a generation of children impacted by this

Where do the major parties stand on free school meals?

The next government must “urgently” expand free school meals, campaigners have warned, or nearly a million children will fall into “the hunger trap”.

Every political party’s manifesto published ahead of polling day on 4 July includes a promise – albeit often a vague one – to tackle poverty. But as deprivation deepens, campaigners are calling on politicians to back up their words with actions, starting with free school meals.

More than two million pupils in England qualify for the lunches, data shows. This accounts for nearly one-in-four (24.6%) state school students, an increase of 75,000 pupils on last year.

The meals are a “lifeline” to struggling families, says Andrew Forsey, from Feeding Britain.

Yet restrictive eligibility requirements are preventing some 900,000 children living in poverty from accessing them.

“No child living in poverty should be disqualified from free school meals, either during term time or during school holidays,” he said.

“[Missing out] can be crippling to children’s life chances. What we are seeing is that poverty is wearing away at body and soul – we may well have a generation of children impacted by this.”

To qualify for the free lunches, a child’s parents or carers must currently be receiving benefits and have an after-tax income below £7,400. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) are calling for the abolition of these limits and for free school meals to be rolled out to all.  

“Classrooms across England are full of children who are hungry or worrying about food,” said CPAG’s head of education policy Kate Anstey. “And lunch halls can be a place of stigma for kids who do get a free school meal. Ensuring every child has a free lunch at school is essential to support wellbeing, learning and inclusion.”

At the least, authorities should roll out an auto-enrolment scheme so that no eligible child misses out, Feeding Britain urges. Around 200,000 eligible children are not registered, Forsey says.

Secondly, the criteria for eligibility should be reformed and “properly aligned with the poverty threshold”.

“Further reform is desperately needed to help children in poverty break free of the hunger trap,” he added.

As part of our Blueprint For Change, the Big Issue is calling on the next government to provide universal free school meals to all school-age children, including outside of term time.

What do the political parties stand on free school meals?

“I’ve read three manifestos which show progress towards this objective. The Lib Dems, the Greens and Labour,” said Forsey.

The Conservatives would not universalise free school meals. Rishi Sunak sparked outrage at the Conservative manifesto launch after claiming that the party had reduced child poverty.

The Lib Dems would offer all primary school children free school meals, funded by a new share buy-back tax.

The Greens have a similar pledge, but include secondary pupils, promising to “give all children a daily free school meal, made from nutritious ingredients and based on local and organic or sustainable produce”.

Labour have promised to establish breakfast clubs at every primary school. However, they have not committed to universalising free school meals, despite increasing pressure to do so.

Labour mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced the policy for all children in the capital – but leader Keir Starmer balked at a national scheme, saying that the party must have “clear rules of what we can’t afford”.

Nonetheless, Forsey says that Labour’s manifesto does provide some cause for optimism.

“There was a crucial commitment, which comes with a mandate to end this mass dependence on emergency food parcels within Britain.

“That commitment gives rise to a large range of policies. And those policies will cover issues like school food coverage in and out of term time… so that rather Delphic single sentence opens up a broad range of possibilities.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? Get in touch and tell us more. Big Issue exists to give homeless and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy of the magazine or get the app from the App Store or Google Play.

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