Free school meals: The families ‘training’ the way they eat so their children won’t go hungry

‘I have calculated everything. I wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for school meals,’ one parent in London says

<p>Tayyaba Siddiqui (left) and Faith Agnwet with her children</p>

Tayyaba Siddiqui (left) and Faith Agnwet with her children

Faith Agnwet says she has learned to “train the way” she eats in school holidays. By managing to eat less, she aims to ensure that her children – aged five and two – do not go hungry.

And with the summer break fast approaching, she is worried.

Her five-year-old son qualifies for free school meals during term time, like nearly 2 million other children in England.

Despite the cost of living crisis, the government has so far resisted calls to extend the scheme over the summer as it did during the first year of the Covid pandemic.

But for Agnwet, times are tough – and are only getting tougher. The single parent says she will “struggle” without any extra help to make sure her children are fed during the six-week holiday.

“It’s definitely something I think about: how will I keep them going?” she says.

Faith Agnwet says she will ‘struggle’ without extra help over the summer

While she would usually bulk-buy to keep costs down during school breaks, she has not been able to afford to do so this year as supermarket prices have soared.

“It’s come to the point where sometimes, when I’m clearing out the closet, I find things that I bulk-bought in, and that’s what actually keeps me going,” the single parent from Southwark tells The Independent.

Over in west London, Aurora* is also worried about what this summer will bring.

The widowed parent says her children – aged seven and 13 – have been receiving free school meals for “as long as I can remember”.

And she says it would help if this support continued throughout the summer, given that the cost of living has risen so much.

“I have calculated everything. I wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for school meals,” the 40-year-old, who has just started a new job as a care assistant on a zero-hours contract, tells The Independent.

“Universal credit just isn’t enough as it is. My rent is really high. Because I live in London, we would really struggle.”

Currently, children can access free food in school holidays through government-funded activity clubs, which usually run for four weeks during the summer.

But Aurora says this is not a viable solution for her children, because of the cost of travel.

Around 495,000 children – less than a third of those who receive free school meals during term time and are therefore eligible to attend – made use of these clubs during last year’s summer holiday, according to official statistics.

“I was offered a summer club last year. But the fact is, I would have had to pay £20 a week to go,” says Aurora, who lives in Ealing.

“Although it was in my borough, it was not within walking distance. My youngest’s school is already almost two miles away.”

In the first year of the Covid pandemic, vouchers were given to families on free school meals during the summer, following a high-profile campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford.

Tayyaba Siddiqui, whose primary-school-aged son receives free school meals, says the same level of support is “definitely needed” this year as well. She is now going without the £20-a-week universal credit uplift, which was scrapped last autumn.

“Vouchers are helpful. Because then you can have a choice what you want to buy,” says the NHS worker, who lives in north London.

“Me and my son eat so many things that are halal,” she says, adding that it is difficult to find a food bank in her area that offers things that are suitable for them to eat; she doesn’t want to have to throw away donated food.

The 46-year-old single parent says times are certainly tough at the moment.

Tayyaba Siddiqui, a 46-year-old NHS worker, says free school meal vouchers are ‘definitely’ needed this summer

“I am counting money,” she says. “As an adult you can survive on less food. Even though it will affect your work if you are tired, not having enough food.

“But what about a child? It’s not his fault. I don’t want my child to know we are going towards poverty.”

Official government figures released this week show that the number of children eligible for free school meals has now jumped to 1.9 million. This equates to 23 per cent of the student population – up from 20.8 per cent last year.

Former education secretaries and unions have called for the free school meals eligibility criteria to be expanded this year during the cost of living crisis, to all children whose families receive universal credit. Those who receive the benefit but earn more than £7,400 a year are currently not entitled to claim free school meals.

A spokesperson for the government said it understands that millions are struggling during the cost of living crisis and is providing an extra £15bn in support in recognition of this.

“We have also expanded access to free school meals more than any other government in recent decades, currently reaching over 1.9 million eligible children,” they said.

“The Holiday Activities and Food programme runs during major school holidays, and wider welfare support is available through the Household Support fund, which helps vulnerable families in need with essentials, such as food and utility bills.”

*Aurora did not want to use her real name

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