Cost of Living Crisis Makes School Lunches Unaffordable

Parents forced to cut back on hot school lunches and choose cheaper, less nutrition packed lunches.

Food and children’s charities are calling on the Government to prioritise school food in the Autumn budget and urgently expand eligibility for free school meals after new research (released 14.11.23) found that a third of families can no  longer afford hot school lunches.

The polling of parents across England, carried out by Survation for the school food charity, Chefs in Schools, also found that 41% of parents were providing less nutritious packed lunches for children because of rising food prices.

The research also reveals:

  • 56% of parents are struggling to make ends meet.
  • 58% feel the current Free School Meals system, where eligibility varies depending on location and age, is unfair.
  • 83% of parents wanted eligibility expanded.
  • 62% said they would be more likely to vote for a party which promised to expand free school meals.

Parents shared stories of shame at no longer being able to afford a hot school lunch for their child because of the cost of living crisis:

It makes me feel like a failure, I feel it makes my child less focused.”

“School meals are too expensive now. We are both working parents and still can't afford to pay for school dinners. Free school meals should be for all. We are worse off working.”

“My husband has a great job, I have a good job which allows for overtime but with 4 kids I struggle as it is, I currently have no money to buy food or pay for school meals, I'm in big debt because everything has become too unaffordable.”

“It makes me feel terrible and guilt ridden as she's no longer able to sit with friends that do have school meals.“

“I’m upset that my child has to take packed lunches when he likes to eat the hot meals at school.”

The School Food Review working group, a coalition of school leaders, local authorities, catering experts and campaigners, say the findings highlight the urgent need for the Government to extend eligibility for free school meals to ensure no child goes hungry in school.  

England’s school meal eligibility threshold is currently the most restrictive of all the devolved nations – only families who earn below £7,400, excluding benefits, are entitled to free school meals – whereas in Scotland and Wales, free school meals are being introduced for all children of primary school age, while Northern Ireland’s eligibility threshold is almost twice that of England’s at £14,000.

In London, all primary school children are now entitled to free school meals following a policy change from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, but children in London’s secondary schools miss out.

Existing research has shown that almost a million children living  in poverty are not entitled to a free meal in school.* With parents now increasingly unable to afford nutritious lunches, campaigners are calling for the Government to act with haste.

Naomi Duncan, Chief Executive of Chefs in Schools, said: “The Chancellor must take action this autumn statement to ensure no child goes hungry at school. We now have growing inequality, where age or location determines whether a child is fed in school. It’s unjustifiable.

“Eating a meal in school goes beyond immediate hunger, providing powerful fuel for learning too. Yet, parents are struggling to afford hot school meals or nutritious packed lunches. There would be no better investment this Government could make in the future, than ensuring access to decent, hot, nutritious, meals in our schools.”

The need for urgent action in the forthcoming budget is backed up by analysis and research showing that children have better outcomes if they can access a school meal, with that investment also returning significant economic benefit for the country. For every £1 invested in school food, £1.71 is returned.**

In London, where eligibility for free school meals has been extended to all children of primary school age, teachers are seeing the benefits.

Woodmansterne School in Lambeth, south London, has 1,600 pupils spanning nursery-age children to sixth formers.

The headteacher, Samantha Palin, says the policy change has delivered immediate benefits for the health and wellbeing of younger children.

Ms Palin said:  “It's given us an opportunity to encourage good eating habits and build an understanding among the children about how eating that nutritious food makes them feel good for the rest of the day.”

Ms Palin says it would be a phenomenal move to extend access to ensure secondary school pupils benefited too.

“The long-term benefits for the NHS and long-term eating habits of feeding children nutritional food until the age of 18 would be incredibly significant,” Ms Palin said.

Woodmansterne has invested in its food, making all meals from scratch and hiring a kitchen team who talk to the children about food. Ms Palin firmly believes access to school food has wide-ranging benefits for children.

“Our last two years of (attainment) data at primary level have been significantly above the national average. That’s never down to just one thing but it’s in part due to the food.”

The coalition of campaigners, including Chefs in Schools, Biteback 2030, the Food Foundation, Sustain, Impact on Urban Health, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and School Food Matters, say politicians must now prioritise school food and take urgent action to extend eligibility without delay.

Read the research in full here, and to support calls to extend eligibility, write to the Secretary of State click here.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2023