Posted: 19 April 2012

Free school meals for all children in poverty

Today, we’re launching our Fair and Square campaign to call on the government to ensure that in the new welfare system every child living in poverty is entitled to a free school meal. Around one million children from disadvantaged backgrounds currently receive a free school meal, leaving 1.2 million children living in poverty who do not receive a free school meal.

Over the coming months the government will consult on the future of free school meals. The introduction of the new benefit system, which includes the universal credit, means that we have the opportunity to create a system in which all children in poverty are eligible for free school meals.

This is an opportunity for the government to invest in children, while ensuring that the universal credit works as intended by making work pay for families.

Why are free school meals so important?

As presented in our Fair and Square campaign report, evidence shows that eating a nutritious meal at lunchtime has important health and educational benefits for children. The meals can improve their diet and increase their concentration during afternoon lessons.

Getting free school meals also provides vital financial support for low-income families.  Free school meals are worth a substantial amount - for example a family with three children receiving free school meals save over £1000 per year.

Feeding children and enabling parents to work

Current eligibility criteria mean that when a family starts working more than 16 hours per week they lose all entitlement to free school meals. The government has indicated a similar situation would happen under universal credit with families losing all entitlement after earning a certain amount, for example £7500 per year.

This creates a huge deterrent for families to move into work or take on more hours or pay, as they could actually be worse off due to the loss of free school meals.

And families are worried. Of the parents we surveyed, 79% said they were worried about the financial impact of moving into work and losing free school meals for their children.

As we explain in our Fair and Square policy report, extending eligibility for free school meals to all children in families in receipt of universal credit will remove this deterrent for parents to go into work or work more. It will also ensure all children in poverty can have a free school lunch. This will require additional investment, a cost that can be borne by government, or part-funded by contributions from parents who are in work and whose children under our proposal would become entitled to free school meals.

91% of the public believe children in poverty should receive a free school meal

We believe this is a sound investment by making work pay for families and improving the health and educational attainment of an additional 1.3 million from more disadvantaged backgrounds – many in working families struggling with rising costs.

An overwhelming majority of people in the UK agree. Out of 1000 responses to our nationally representative poll, 91% of people believe that all children in poverty should receive a free school meal. (See our Fair and Square campaign report for more information.)

Please join in today - tell your MP to help ensure all children in poverty receive a free school meal.

For more information, visit our Fair and Square campaign web pages.

By David Hounsell, Economic Advisor

By David Hounsell - Policy team

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Never mind free school meals for those in poverty. ALL children in school should receive a free meal irrespective of their parents income. After all, ALL children should be treated equally by the school system. So it may cost more to deliver but I'm sure there will be plenty if savings in beaurocracy and in children being marked as different because they do or do not qualify for a free school meal. If you really represent ALL children then make it happen.

Dear Lee,

Many thanks for your comment, and can understand why you would be keen to see free school meals extended to all children. However, The Children’s Society is not calling for all children to receive a free school meal, only those who need it most. The cost of extending free school meals to all children would, particularly a the moment, be prohibitively expensive.

However, more limited extension is without doubt an investment worth making. It would help to ensure all children in poverty were entitled to receive a free school meal, and that work always pays.