Free school meal registrations rising as families struggle to feed their children

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

There has been a dramatic spike in free school meal registrations this term as the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic begins to hit families hard.

New data gathered in September estimates that as many as 900,000 children aged eight and above have been newly registered for FSM (Food Foundation, 2020).

It comes as separate research from the End Child Poverty coalition has revealed sharp rises in child poverty levels, including in the Midlands and across Northern cities (Hirsch & Stone, 2020).

There are now serious fears that rising child poverty will spark a food crisis for many families in the coming months. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has said this week that without government action, some children will go hungry.

Published by the Food Foundation as part of footballer Marcus Rashford’s on-going #EndChildFoodPoverty campaign, the FSM research estimates that 29 per cent of children are now claiming free meals – the equivalent of 2.2 million nationwide. Of these, it says that 42 per cent are newly registered, which equates to around 900,000 young people.

The findings are based on a survey of more than 1,000 children and more than 2,300 parents/carers.

The data shows that two-thirds of the newly registered children are from families where the main earners report being in higher income occupations. However, 32 per cent of households have experienced a fall in income since March.

Many schools have stopped serving traditional lunches due to Covid safety measures, the data shows, with only 32 per cent of the children reporting being able to access hot lunches. The survey also finds that:

  • Eight per cent of children report that their school canteen is closed.
  • Ten per cent say they have been asked to bring packed lunches.
  • Three per cent say they have skipped lunch entirely.
  • More than 50 per cent say they are bringing packed lunches (which is concerning as previous research by Leeds University has shown that less than two per cent of packed lunches meet nutritional standards).
  • Twenty-one per cent say that their canteens are only serving a small number of pupils.

It comes amid huge rises in child poverty in many areas of the country. Research from the End Child Poverty coalition shows that the highest rates of poverty are to be found in London and Birmingham. There are 12 constituencies across the two cities where more than half of children live below the poverty line after housing costs are factored in.

The research, which has been undertaken by Loughborough University and is based on government data from March 2020, covers the last four years and reports sharp rises in child poverty in the Midlands region and across the North.

Middlesbrough and parts of Tyneside have seen child poverty rates rise by more than 10 percentage points since 2014/15. The main reason behind the rise has been huge increases in housing costs, including rental payments, which have historically been cheaper in the North.

Dramatic rise: The 20 constituencies with the highest increases in child poverty after housing costs (AHC) between 2014/15 and 2018/19 (Hirsch & Stone, 2020)

The End Child Poverty coalition said: “Many of these families find that once their housing costs are paid they do not have enough money to meet their children’s needs and are left no option but to turn to crisis help, like food banks, and are increasingly reliant on FSM.

“The impact of poverty on children is well documented with children from low income families more likely to experience worse physical and mental health; do less well in school; and have fewer opportunities in the future.”

The End Child Poverty coalition wants to see a recognition from the government about the scale of the problem. It is frustrated that prime minister Boris Johnson has been rebuked by the Statistics Authority for repeatedly misusing child poverty figures.

It also wants government action to include tackling the high cost of housing and childcare and to prioritise investment in children’s services.

And both the End Child Poverty coalition and Marcus Rashford’s Child Food Poverty Task Force are calling for FSM to be extended to all families in receipt of Universal Credit.

Mr Rashford is also campaigning for an extension to the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to all areas in England, so that summer holiday support is available to all children in receipt of FSM.

Poverty picture: The 20 Parliamentary constituencies with highest child poverty rates in 2018/19 (Hirsch & Stone, 2020)

Housing hit: The 20 constituencies with the highest rates of poverty after housing costs (AHC) compared to before housing costs (BHC) poverty rates in 2018/19 (Hirsch & Stone, 2020)

Responding to the Food Foundation research, the NAHT has warned that more support will be needed as the second wave of the pandemic hits this winter. It also pointed out that one in 10 children who are eligible for FSM currently miss out on their entitlement, meaning that even the stark figures in the research do not tell the whole story of child food poverty.

General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “Without doubt, the disruption to people’s livelihoods because of Covid will mean that even more children are plunged into poverty. As the pandemic continues into the winter and next year, more support will be needed.

“Children who are hungry cannot learn as well as they might be able to. Free school meals at least guarantee that children get one nutritious meal a day during term time. We must do all that we can to extend that entitlement to every child that is going hungry, and we must fix the problems in society that cause families to fall in to the poverty trap.”

Mr Rashford added: “The numbers recorded here just reinforce the need for urgency in stabilising households. This is a pandemic that could leave longer-term devastation than Covid-19. We must act now to protect the next generation and the most vulnerable.”

Anna Taylor, executive director of Food Foundation, said: “A hot school lunch should provide vital sustenance for vulnerable children. Too many children are missing out because their families can’t afford it. Many more are missing out because canteens are not yet fully operational due to Covid-19. Addressing both should be a top priority for the government or the divide between children from wealthy and economically disadvantaged families will widen even further, leaving permanent impacts on children’s lives.”

And Anna Feuchtwang, chair of End Child Poverty, said: “The prime minister must urgently admit to the true extent of child poverty in our country rather than resorting to his own inaccurate statistics. As a matter of urgency, we are calling on the chancellor not to go ahead with planned cuts to Universal Credit which would see families lose out on £1,000 a year. Given today’s data, this cut is unconscionable.”

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