“It’s high time we gave them one less thing to worry about. That’s why we’re calling for urgent changes to the rules so all families on a low income can get this daily support.”
Support The Big Issue and our vendors by signing up for a subscription.
Around 4.3 million children were already living below the breadline in the UK before Covid-19 gripped the country and pushed more families into hardship through redundancies, income cuts and increased living costs.
Free school meals are given to families on a range of benefits and those on universal credit if their income falls below a certain threshold.
Households receiving universal credit payments – set to be cut by £20 per week in a month – in England and Wales must earn below £7,400 per year for children to qualify for free school meals, or £7,320 in Scotland.
The threshold is higher in Northern Ireland, at £14,000, but nearly a quarter of disadvantaged children are still ineligible for free school meals.
Experts said the strict criteria was a particular concern in light of the UK’s high rates of in-work poverty, with the number of working families trapped in hardship hitting a record high just before the pandemic.
CPAG and participants of the Covid Realities project, which researches the pandemic’s impact on low-income parents and carers, are urging central and devolved governments to expand the free school meals scheme to all children whose families receive universal credit or other benefits.
The meals should also be given to pupils with no recourse to public funds, they said – the “hostile environment” policy which locks people out of welfare support depending on their immigration status.
Children in reception, year one and year two in England all receive free school meals while the Scottish government aims to roll out free lunches to all primary school pupils by August 2022.
Emma, a Covid Realities participant, told researchers: “My son was entitled to free school meals as he was in the age bracket for it. Now he’s older he won’t be getting them so that is extra expenses I need to find on top of a new school uniform and two other children also starting nursery for the first time.
“We won’t receive free school meals because of our income, yet we are classed as on a low income. It doesn’t make sense to me at all and it just adds that expense on top of the £20 lifeline being taken away. I feel as though I’m being hit from both angles.”
Ministers should aim to give free school meals to all children in the UK regardless of background in the long term, CPAG said, estimating it would cost the UK around £1.75bn. But in the short term, the £20-per-week cut to universal credit must be scrapped, the report’s authors recommended.
“Listening to parents and carers living on a low income it is evident the important difference that free school meals can make to family finances,” said Dr Maddy Power, co-investigator of the Covid Realities project. “But also the hardship caused when families, despite living in poverty, miss out on this essential support.
Making free school meals available for all children across the country is “ultimately the only dignified and fair solution”, she added.
A government spokesperson told The Big Issue: “Throughout the pandemic schools provided free school meals for eligible pupils, including while they were learning remotely. With pupils and students returning to face-face-education, normal school meal provision has resumed, and we have been clear we will continue to support eligible pupils during the school term.
“Outside of term-time, families in England have benefited from additional support for food and utilities, and from our expanded Holiday Activities and Food Programme, which has provided healthy food and enriching activities to thousands of disadvantaged children this year – including over the summer holidays.”