Cost of living crisis: Restrictive FSM eligibility criteria must be expanded, campaigners say

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

“We see the devastating reality of children coming to school unable to afford to buy lunch, because their family circumstances mean they fall outside the restrictive free school meal eligibility criteria.”

With 2.6 million children living in households that miss meals or struggle to access healthy food, now is the time to expand free school meal (FSM) provision.

Campaigners have written to chancellor Rishi Sunak and education secretary Nadhim Zahawi urging action.

They want to see FSM urgently extended to all families receiving Universal Credit as a stepping-stone to universal provision.

The letter has been coordinated by the Food Foundation, whose latest food insecurity tracking data (2022) shows that 2.6 million children live in households that missed meals or struggled to access healthy food. This means that 17.2% of homes with children are affected.

The data suggests that levels of food insecurity in households with children have risen by 42% since the beginning of 2022 due to the cost of living crisis among other things.

Recent government figures show that the number of children living in relative poverty after housing costs in the UK stands at 3.9 million, down by 400,000 on the previous 4.3 million figure (DWP, 2022).

However, this represents 27% of the UK’s children and compares to the 3.6 million children who were living in poverty in 2010/11. Furthermore, the figures do not take into account the removal of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit which was in place last year not the impact of the cost-of-living crisis currently facing the country.

The figures show that 22% of those children and young people living in poverty – around 900,000 – are in a household classified as “food insecure”.

And while 27% of children are classified as living in poverty, only about one in five pupils in England are currently eligible for FSM.

The letter, which has been signed by unions, professional bodies, and multi-academy trusts, states: “The intensifying cost of living crisis means many more are now struggling to afford school lunches. We are seeing children falling into school meal debt, and there is a serious threat to take-up of school meals and the viability of the catering service, not to mention risking the health and wellbeing of our pupils.

“We see the devastating reality of children coming to school unable to afford to buy lunch, because their family circumstances mean they fall outside the restrictive free school meal eligibility criteria.”

“Now is the right moment for the government to commit to an expansion of FSM, providing a nutritional safety net that supports all children to learn and achieve.

“The clear solution to ensuring fairness and equity across our schools is to extend universal provision, as Wales and Scotland are now committed to deliver. But as an immediate first step, free school meal eligibility criteria need to be expanded to all families receiving universal credit (or an equivalent benefit).”

Research last year (Patrick et al, 2021) revealed that despite a rise in the number of children claiming FSMs in the year to March 2021, restrictive eligibility criteria still prevent many in poverty from accessing any form of FSM provision.

For example, households on Universal Credit in England and Wales must earn less than £7,400 a year to be eligible for FSM, regardless of the number of children in the family. In Scotland, they must earn less than £7,320, while in Northern Ireland, it is £14,000.

Many campaigners want to see school meals offered to every pupil, something which the report last year estimated would cost £1.75bn a year. Meanwhile, offering FSMs to all households on Universal Credit would cost £700m. Another stepping-stone would be to follow the Scottish government’s lead by extending FSMs to all primary school pupils. Patrick et al estimates this would cost £770m.

One of the signatories to the Food Foundation letter is Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

He said: “It is vital in general that FSM provision is extended to more children but particularly so at this time because of the cost-of-living crisis which is pushing many families deeper into poverty. A significant number of children in difficult circumstances are clearly missing out.

“Ensuring that all children who need this provision receive a FSM is hugely important not only in terms of health but also education as children who are hungry are not in a fit state to learn.”

The Food Foundation’s Jo Ralling added: “Government urgently needs to reconsider the threshold used in England for free school meals so more children are protected by this vital safety net. Far too many of our most vulnerable families are not receiving the support they need and the situation is now critical with the current cost of living crisis.”

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