Posted: 15 May 2020

International Day of Families: changing the school lunch room

Today is International Day of Families, a chance to raise awareness of the issues facing families and their close communities.

This week's guest blog comes from Nadia Chalabi at the Hackney Migrant Centre. She tells us how strict immigration policies make it difficult for families to access the support they desperately need.

School and society

For most of us, school is our first experience of society outside of home. We learn the expectations and limitations put on us by others and our understanding of our potential and worth is shaped by these experiences.

But how can schools provide a positive environment for all children, regardless of immigration status or financial background, when government policy makes access to school food discriminatory? 

Migrant families struggling

People with the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) condition on their immigration status are excluded from the safety net of welfare support.

This condition leaves people vulnerable to the most extreme poverty in society when they have a low income, face barriers to work, or are denied the right to work. Families are particularly affected, as they have higher outgoings whilst their ability to work is often limited by the unaffordable cost of childcare.

The A Lifeline For All report shows in detail how migrant families struggle under an inhumane immigration system. At Hackney Migrant Centre we see that homelessness, overcrowding, rent arrears, eviction and/or hunger are common experiences for low income families with NRPF.

Excluded from free school meals

Before schools closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, all children from families with NRPF were excluded from the safety net of free school meals. This meant that many of the children most likely to go hungry at home were also unable to rely on food at school.

Whilst schools are closed, the Department for Education (DfE) has introduced a temporary extension to free school meals to some families with NRPF. This extension is profoundly flawed. It still excludes most undocumented children and families, and those with a range of visas that are not included in the extension. The maximum amount eligible families with NRPF can earn to qualify for free school meals is the same as the amount set for families who receive Universal Credit – £7,400 per year or £616 per month.

Many families in poverty already miss out on free school meals because of this threshold and may struggle to feed their children. But for families with NRPF, the threshold is even lower in practice because they don’t have their earnings topped up by Universal Credit. The families with NRPF that the extension does reach, will lose support as soon as schools reopen. 

A hostile environment in schools

The DfE has already shown its commitment to maintaining the hostile environment in schools. It has a data sharing agreement with the Home Office and has collected pupil data for the purpose of immigration enforcement that it refuses to delete. The Hackney Migrant Centre is concerned that in the current system, even if free school meals were extended to all undocumented families it would be unsafe for them to access this support.

Making the lunch room inclusive

So many children facing food insecurity at home cannot eat what they need at school because they are either excluded from free school meals or because the daily free school meal allowance of £2.30 is not enough for children in secondary school.

The free school meals system doesn’t work as it currently stands, as it overlooks the needs of the most marginalised children.

Hackney Migrant Centre believes that free school meals for all pupils are the only way to remove immigration status and family income from the lunchroom. Schools must give all children an opportunity to experience a better and fairer society than the one outside of their gates.


By Nadia Chalabi

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