For children from poorer families, free school meals guarantee a decent lunch each day, making a huge difference to a family's finances

School girl sat on steps

A free school lunch is a lifeline for children in poverty, ensuring an adequate meal when food may be tight at home. These are worth around £400 a year per child – a huge sum if you’re on a low income. Significant research evidence shows that school meals have proven benefits for children’s health, education and futures.

Why are we working to change government policy on free school meals?

Eligibility for free school meals is determined by access to certain benefits. Our research showed that currently around a million children living in poverty in England do not receive a free school meal under these rules.

But Universal Credit has gradually been replacing these old benefits, covering families both in and out of work. Had Universal Credit been allowed to continue rolling out as it was – with all families on the new benefit entitled to free school meals - then almost all children in poverty would have gained access to free school meals in the future.

However, in April 2018 the government in England changed the rules so that families on Universal Credit earning more than £7,400 a year are no longer entitled to free school meals. This means that one million children in poverty will now continue to miss out.

We know that, despite working hard, families on low incomes struggle and that teachers end up taking it upon themselves to bring snacks in for students feeling the effects of hunger. These changes even mean that those working families at the edge of the earnings threshold will lose money if they work more hours or get a pay rise – shattering the principle that work should always pay and trapping these families in poverty.

In fact, analysis we produced jointly with Child Poverty Action Group and academics at University of York found this new poverty trap could affect around 280,000 low income working families in England, containing over 700,000 children.

Our campaign to stop these changes taking place

We campaigned to stop the changes from being implemented, securing almost 10,000 responses to the Government's consultation and two debates in Parliament on the issue.

While the Government lost a vote on their changes in the House of Lords, this was not enough to prevent it from coming into force in England from 1 April 2018. We have continued to talk with the Government about how to improve its policy.

You can find out more information in this short parliamentary briefing

See more on our England free school meals maps and our frequently asked questions.

Proposed changes to free school meals in Wales

The Welsh Government is currently consulting on their proposed changes to free school meals under Universal Credit. The consultation closed on 14th September 2018 and the outcome is expected soon.

Currently, around 55,000 school children living in poverty in Wales are not eligible for free school meals under the old benefits system. Most of these children would soon have gained access to free school meals as the new Universal Credit system rolls out. This is because all families on Universal Credit are at present entitled to free school meals.

However, the Welsh Government has proposed limiting free school meals for families on Universal Credit to those earning less than just £7,400 a year. This is a huge missed opportunity, meaning those children who could have benefited in the future will instead continue to miss out.

You can find out more information in this short briefing for Assembly Members

Our joint open letter to the Welsh Government

We have written a joint open letter to the Welsh Government alongside six other organisations in Wales to express our deep concerns with the proposal. The signatories include:

  • The Children’s Society
  • Church in Wales
  • Food Sense Wales
  • Bevan Foundation
  • Oxfam Cymru
  • Church Action on Poverty
  • Caritas – Social Action Network

On free school meals, Welsh ministers have the powers to act and to make a difference. Universal Credit only goes to those families deemed in need of support. We have urged the Welsh Government to continue to allow all children in these families to access free school meals.

The letter was published in the Western Mail and Wales Online.

Use our map below to find out how many children in Wales who are living in poverty will be left missing out on free school meals under the Welsh Government's proposals.


The stats from England