Education and Union leaders representing a million teachers and education specialists demand action on free school meals  

Teachers say worsening hunger crisis damaging children’s prospects. School and Education Union leaders representing more than a million teachers, support staff and others working with children have written to the chancellor Rishi Sunak and the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi demanding free school meals are offered to all children in families receiving universal credit or equivalent benefits.  
The demand from ten different unions and professional organisations follows a major survey from The Food Foundation carried out last month, which revealed that around 2.6 million children live in households that missed meals or struggled to access healthy food, meaning that a total of 17.2% of homes with children are affected. The same survey found levels of food insecurity in households with children have risen by 42% since the beginning of 2022. 

The devolved governments of Scotland and Wales are committed to providing free school meals for all primary school children, as well as more generous breakfast provision. There has been no such commitment to offer the same opportunities to children in England. In England the threshold to get free school meals is a combined household income of £7,400 before benefits. 

The current restrictive policy means just under two in five children living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals, according to the Child Poverty Action Group

This group of around a million children in total, also miss out on holiday support in terms of access to the Governments HAF schemes which include a hot lunch, as well as access to benefits from the pupil premium, the grant given by the government to schools in England to decrease the attainment gap for the most disadvantaged children. 

Numerous research projects have shown that good diet in childhood improves health, attainment and behaviour at school, as well as boosting lifetime productivity. 
There is no other part of the school day where children are means tested to participate and campaigners argue that extending free school meal provision would demonstrate the government’s commitment to its levelling up agenda. 

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.” said Jo Ralling, from The Food Foundation. 

The ability to thrive and enjoy school should be the fundamental right of every child, but more and more of them are coming to school underfed or undernourished,” said Dr Nick Capstick, Chair of the School Food Review Group and headteacher at a Wiltshire primary school. “We are also seeing more of our pupils having time away from school because of illness and poor oral hygiene caused by inadequate diet. Schools are increasingly faced with the need to support and often feed young people whose families can no longer afford the right food at home. Universal free schools meals is a simple way of eradicating this situation.” 

The new data from The Food Foundation makes grim reading and we know from our own research that far too many families, identified by their schools as needing support, do not qualify for free school meals” said Stephanie Slater, Founder and Chief Executive at School Food Matters. “With so many children missing out on good nutrition we fully support the call to extend universal provision."