Free school meals expansion campaign picks up pace as cost of living crisis bites

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

Expanding free school meals (FSMs) to all families on Universal Credit could yield a £25bn boost to the economy, research suggests.

It comes after a survey of school meal providers has revealed that more children are arriving at school without having had breakfast and a decrease in the number of paid meals being served.

Research commissioned by the Feed the Future campaign has concluded that for every £1 invested in providing FSMs to children on Universal Credit, £1.38 would be returned over 20 years (2025 to 2045).

These returns come from improved health outcomes, including lower obesity rates, better education outcomes via improved behaviour and academic performance, and better employment prospects.

The figure also includes the boost such a policy would give to wider opportunities, such as expanded school catering employment.

The campaign is lobbying government for FSM expansion and is being led by a coalition of organisations including the Food Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group.

It was buoyed recently when influential Conversative MP Michael Gove told a fringe meeting at the Tory party conference that he supports extending FSM to all primary school children and all children on Universal Credit.

Almost one in four pupils in state-funded education now qualify for FSMs, but restrictive eligibility criteria prevent many more who are living in poverty from accessing a free school lunch.

Pupil census information (DfE, 2022) shows that 1.9 million pupils were eligible for FSM as of January 2022 – equating to 22.5% of the student population and an increase of nearly 160,000 since January 2021, and of around 450,000 since January 2020.

However, it is estimated that 800,000 children living in poverty are still not eligible.

The latest child poverty figures show that the number of children living in relative poverty after housing costs in the UK stands at 3.9 million. This represents 27% of the UK’s children.

The figures also show that 22% of those living in poverty – around 900,000 children and young people – are in a household classified as “food insecure”. It is expected that things will worsen when the impact of the axing last year of the Universal Credit £20 uplift filters through.

In a separate piece of research this week, a survey conducted by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE, 2022) on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food found that 53% of the respondents, which included school meal providers and school staff, are seeing more children arrive at school without having had breakfast.

Furthermore, 50% have seen a decrease in the number of paid meals being served, and 36% report a decrease in the quality of packed lunches.

And a poll published this week by the Food Foundation shows that 72% of almost 3,000 adults surveyed supported the expansion of FSMs to all children affected by food poverty.

Feed the Future is focusing its campaign on achieving an expansion of FSMs to all children on Universal Credit.

The campaign’s research was undertaken PwC and was commissioned by Impact on Urban Health, a member of Feed the Future. The study also considered a second scenario – the expansion of FSMs to all children in state-funded schools in England. It concluded that this would yield a £1.71 return for every £1 spent, resulting in a £100bn benefit to the economy by 2045.

Specifically, under this scenario, the analysis outlines a £22.5bn saving in reduced food costs for families, a £18.5bn boost to lifetime earnings and contributions, £12m in cost savings relating to childhood obesity, and £0.3bn in cost savings for schools.

Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, said: “The cost-of-living crisis is having an awful impact on children with many going hungry and not getting the nutrition they need to grow up healthily. We strongly urge the government to listen and urgently act to ensure that our children in need are guaranteed at least one nutritious meal a day at school.”

Food quality warning

Elsewhere this week, there are stark warnings that the quality of school meals has declined and will fall further due to the cost of living crisis.

It comes from yet another study, this time conducted by LACA, a professional body representing the school food sector, which found that 91% of its members who responded are experiencing food shortages, with 60% saying this has not improved since May.

The survey involved school meal providers operating in 9,874 schools and responsible for feeding 1.8 million pupils.

The findings show that prices have risen by a further 30% across the board, in addition to a 20% price increases that LACA reported in a similar survey in May. Some caterers, they say, have experienced 50% price increases since May.

It means that caterers have had to change their menus (76%), with a third now using more processed foods to cope with rising costs (28%), and a quarter (24%) saying they may have to reduce cost through the quality of meat purchased.

More than half (52%) said they expect the quality of school meals to continue getting worse over the coming weeks and months.

The APSE survey also found that close to 50% of school meal providers had experienced an increase in food costs of at least 20%.

LACA is calling on the government to increase funding per meal for both universal infant FSMs (currently £2.41) and FSMs generally (currently £2.47) to address the current cost of living crisis and for this to increase annually with inflation.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Paul Gosling, president of the National Association of Head Teachers and a headteacher himself, said: “In the school I run we have our own kitchens and employ our own kitchen staff. We are finding that food costs and staff costs have risen to the point that the money that we get for infants and the 45% of children who have FSMs does not cover the cost of providing the meals. Add the cost of energy to this and the problem is worse.”

Dr Gosling said that he was “determined” not to put costs up for his families who pay £2.30 for meals, and yet the cost of each meal for his school is closer now to £2.60, meaning he makes a loss on every meal, FSM or not. It equates for him to a loss of at least £5,200 a year.

He continued: “This money comes from the main school budget. The school is subsiding the provision of meals at the cost of other things like staff and the curriculum. I know that this is a problem for many schools. We could cut costs but we will not, we want to provide a nourishing and nutritious meal to all the children that need one.

“Rising prices mean that schools and caterers have to choose between reducing costs, charging more, or losing money. The only thing that will solve this is more funding from the government.”

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