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Social Justice

Children are ‘eating rubbers and stealing food’ at school because they are hungry

Around 800,000 children living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals – so a new campaign is calling for the scheme to be expanded to include every child in a household on universal credit

Children are eating rubbers and stealing food from their classmates because they are so hungry in school, teachers have reported. 

More than 80 per cent of primary school teachers polled by the charity Chefs in Schools said children are coming to school hungry because their families cannot afford food. A quarter said children are skipping lunch entirely due to poverty

“The situation is appalling and getting so much worse,” Naomi Duncan, chief executive of charity Chefs in Schools, said. “Schools are again on the front line, seeing the impact of more families unable to afford nutritious food.”

The report found it’s often the children whose parents just miss the cut off for financial help who suffer the most. Currently, around 800,000 children living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals

Teachers said pupils were “often unwell due to the lack of nutrients in their food at home”, while others noticed children were “eating things such as rubbers to have something in their tummies”. 

One teacher added: “Children have stolen snacks from other children because they’re hungry and it’s not fair that they’re then tarnished with being a thief by other children when their basic needs should be met.”

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Only families who earn below £7,400 are entitled to free school meals in England. By comparison, all primary school children in Scotland and Wales get free school meals, while Northern Ireland’s eligibility threshold is almost twice that of England’s at £14,000. 

Lisa Williams, head teacher at Rushey Green Primary School in Lewisham, said she’d “ never known anything like this” during her career. 

She added: “If children are hungry, they can’t concentrate so our resources are worthless, but if the budget goes on school food, the resources suffer.”

She said some children have just a slice of bread in their packed lunches, and they see cheap snacks that are low on nutrition. It often gets worse towards the end of the week or month when money runs out at home. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” Williams said. “Parents are struggling. This isn’t about not wanting to feed their children, it’s about not being able to afford nutritious choices.”

Food charities including Chefs in Schools, the Food Foundation, and celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Tom Kerridge, have launched a campaign calling on the government to urgently extend free school meals eligibility to all children from families in receipt of universal credit. 

Research conducted as part of the campaign revealed expanding the free school meals scheme could generate billions for the economy.

“The cost of living crisis is having an awful impact on children with many going hungry and not getting the nutrition they need to grow up healthily,” said Anna Taylor, executive director at the Food Foundation. “We strongly urge the government to listen and urgently act to ensure that our children in need are guaranteed at least one nutritious meal a day at school.”

If you need any support this winter, the Big Issue is here to help. Find more information about how to get help in the cost of living crisis in our winter survival guide.

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