Posted: 14 December 2011

The future of free school meals: Tell us what you think

For more than 100 years subsidised school meals have been provided to children who need them. Today, these free meals provide a crucial form of support for around a million children in low-income families, ensuring they receive a nutritious lunch at school.

The benefits of school dinners are well known. Students tend to learn more and be better behaved when they have a full belly. Also, school meals have better nutritional content than the average lunchbox – only 1% of lunches from home meet the nutritional standards required for school lunches.

However, free school meals are beset by problems. There can be a stigma attached to children who receive them.

The criteria for free school meal eligibility can dissuade people from taking up paid work. A family is not entitled to free lunches if they work more than 16 hours per week. As a result, children in low-income families can be in poverty but still not entitled to free school meals.

Opportunities and threats to free school meals

Following fundamental reforms of the welfare system and the introduction of the new universal credit benefit, eligibility criteria for free school meals will need to change substantially. Such a change creates opportunities and threats.

We have the opportunity to ensure that more children benefit from a free, nutritious school lunch. The threat is that poorly constructed criteria could further undermine work incentives, meaning that fewer children than ever get a free school lunch.

One proposal that has been suggested is that the government introduce a simple earnings threshold above which a family would lose their free school meal entitlement.

Given the substantial cash value of the meals (they’re worth £370 each year per child), families could be left significantly worse off. An increase in work hours or pay could increase their income enough to put them just over the entitlement threshold. It’s simply not right that a family could be left worse off as a result of a pay rise.

Tell us what you think

In order to feed in to the development of a new system, we want to hear from you and any parents who are or have been entitled to free school meals. We want to hear from you regardless of whether you took the entitlement or not.

We want to know your experiences and any views about creating a free school meals system that works for all children and families.

If you are a parent in this position, we would be extremely grateful if you could complete our online survey.

By Sam Royston, Policy Advisor at The Children's Society

By Sam Royston - Policy team

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