Children who do not qualify for free school meals are so hungry they are ‘eating rubbers’, MPs told

At least 900,000 children living in poverty in England are missing out on Free School Meals due to the threshold set by government

Jabed Ahmed
Thursday 09 May 2024 15:53 BST
Headteacher says free school meals 'undermine personal responsibility'

Schoolchildren are pretending to eat out of empty lunchboxes and eating rubbers because they do not qualify for free school meals, MPs have heard.

At least 900,000 children living in poverty in England are said to be missing out on free school meals due to the threshold set by the government, the Child Poverty Action Group claims.

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Munira Wilson, told a commons debate on the provision of free school meals: “A child pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox because they do not qualify for free school meals and do not want their friends to know that there is no food at home.

“A child coming into school having not eaten anything since lunch the day before, so hungry that they are eating rubbers at school; and a child hiding in the playground because they do not think they can get a meal—all stories from schools in England today. This has to stop.”

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Currently, all children at state schools in England are entitled to free school lunches from reception up to Year 2. Pupils in Year 3 to 6 from households in receipt of eligible benefits are also entitled to free lunches under existing government rules.

Ms Wilson told MPs that free lunches can be “life-changing” as it helps children eat healthy, improve their concentration and save their parents money.

Research by PwC commissioned by Impact on Urban Health found that every £1 spent on free school meals for the poorest children generates £1.38 in core benefits, including a boost to the lifetime earnings of those children by almost £3 billion.

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munira Wilson (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

“Free school meals are incredible, and we should give one to every child living in poverty, whether in primary or secondary school, because hunger and poverty do not stop at the age of 11,” the MP for Twickenham said.

Ms Wilson told a story of a mother in her constituency who had fled her abusive partner, and was skipping her mental health medication so she could save to pay for her daughter’s lunch.

“That is a mother taking the responsibility to feed her child seriously and she is paying the price with her health and wellbeing. I’m afraid the Conservative Government is forcing parents to make impossible choices such as these.”

She said those who criticise parents for not taking enough responsibility are “insulting every parent who can’t afford to feed their child”.

Ms Wilson added: “That a free school meal may be the only hot meal a child eats in a day in this country is a scandal. In a country such as England families are struggling with this basic human need and that is appalling. The Government should hang its head in shame.”

Schools Minister Damian Hinds said he was proud the government had extended free school meals eligibility more than any other.

“We spend over £1billion per annum delivering free school lunches to the greatest ever proportion of school children - over a third,” he said.

“That is in contrast to the one in six who were receiving a free school meal in 2010. This change is despite unemployment being down by a million, more than 600,000 fewer children being in workless households since 2010 and the proportion of people in low hourly pay having halved since 2015.”

In January, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced the extension of Universal Free School Meals for state primary school children across the capital. This programme costs the Greater London Authority approximately £130m a year.

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