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Seven in 10 children in families on universal credit are not eligible for free school meals

Around seven in 10 children in families on universal credit are missing out on free school meals, according to new research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. So, how much would it cost the government to expand the scheme?

Free school meals/ universal credit

Free school meals are a lifeline for low-income families. Image: Pexels

Around 1.7 million children are in families deemed poor enough to receive universal credit but are not eligible for free school meals, new research has found. That is seven in 10 children in families on universal credit

Experts at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) have analysed the options and costs of expanding free school meals in England. Charities have repeatedly called for more children to be offered free lunches as families face soaring food costs and millions go hungry in the cost of living crisis.

If a parent earns more than £7,400, after tax and excluding benefits, their child will not be eligible for free school meals. This threshold has been frozen since it was introduced in 2018-2019. 

A year’s worth of free meals is worth around £460 per child, according to the IFS. Parents who are earning near the £7,400 income gap therefore have a financial incentive to avoid earning a little more if it would mean losing access to free meals. 

Funding for free school meals has fallen in real terms since 2015. Currently, the government provides £2.41 for every meal. That is an increase of 11p per meal in comparison to the 2021-2022 rates. But food prices have soared rapidly, with food inflation hitting a 45-year high in February, putting pressure on free school meal budgets. 

“The current system of means-tested free school meals is tightly targeted at the most disadvantaged families – so making existing provision more generous by, for example, reversing the real-terms cuts to the funding rate would directly benefit the very poorest,” Christine Farquharson, senior research economist at the IFS, said. 

Increasing the funding rate in line with inflation to £2.87 would cost an extra £250 million a year. That rises to £300 million when extra funding for devolved nations is included.

“High levels of food insecurity among families on universal credit mean that policymakers such as the Mayor of London are once again consulting the policy menu for options to expand free school meals.” 

London’s mayor Sadiq Khan has confirmed free meals will be provided in all primary schools across London for the 2023/2024 academic year. It is a £130 million scheme and will fund free meals for 270,000 children who do not already receive them.

Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, said it was a “monumental step forward” but there are hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty outside the capital who don’t qualify for free lunches. 

The foundation has calculated there are 800,000 children living in poverty who are not eligible for free school meals (based on the government’s Households Below Average Income statistics). It called for an expansion to the free school meals scheme to all of these children in a campaign backed by celebrities including Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Zayn Malik

Labour MP Zarah Sultana has gone further and called on the government to provide meals to every child in primary school. She said this “would ease the pressure for every family, and help ensure every child has the basics to learn, grow and thrive”. 

This is soon to be the case in Scotland, where free meals are currently available to all children in primaries one to five. It has committed to a phased approach to expanding universal free school meals to all children in primary school. Wales has also pledged to roll out free meals to all primary-age children by 2024.

But the experts at the IFS warn this has costs. Extending free school meals to all primary state school pupils in England would cost an additional £1 billion a year in the longer term. 



Offering free school meals to all primary and secondary pupils (up to Year 11) would cost an extra £2.5 billion a year. This would be enough to fund a 10 per cent pay rise for teachers, roughly. 

Significant expansions in eligibility could also require the government to fund improvements to school kitchens and dining areas. 

Andrew McKendrick, research economist at IFS, said: “Universalising free school meals would affect children across the income distribution and might have wider benefits for health and educational outcomes, but it would also significantly increase existing spending.”

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If the government were to expand free school meals to all children in primary and secondary school whose families claim universal credit, that would also cost about £1 billion a year in the longer term, a 70 per cent increase in spending on free school meals.

So what are the lower-cost options? The National Food Strategy has proposed the income cap is raised to £20,000 a year, which would bring about 900,000 children into eligibility. This would be a less expensive reform, costing around £425 million a year and would mean that around two-thirds of children whose families get universal credit also get means-tested free school meals.

But McKendrick added: “Expanding eligibility – for example, to include more families on universal credit – would focus more of the additional spending on low-income families, but still would not directly benefit the very poorest children, who are already entitled to free lunches.”

Campaigners will continue to push for free school meals, with the Food Foundation finding that the expansion of free school meals – while costly – would generate billions of pounds for the economy. It has found that for every £1 invested, £1.38 would be returned, through social, health and educational benefits.

“Many children excluded from free school meals are forced to skip lunch or rely on cheap, unhealthy food that damages their long-term health,” Taylor said. “If it continues to go unchecked, our child obesity epidemic will place a greater burden on our NHS and block our economic development. Conversely, a well-nourished child will lead a fuller, happier and more prosperous life.”

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