CPAG Guest Post: Going hungry despite Free School Meals

Guest post by Rys Farthing

New figures published by the Child Poverty Action Group and the British Youth Council reveal that many poor children are going hungry at school, including those entitled to free school meals.

 Some 3.6 million children live below the poverty line, and while not all of these will be in school, only 1.27 million children are registered for Free School Meals. This means that many young people living below the poverty line are not entitled to FSM. And for these young people, the price of school meals – at around £9.40/week – is prohibitively expensive.

 The research aimed to examine the adequacy of the current Free School Meal scheme. Currently, only young people whose parents are on out-of-work benefits are entitled to receive free school meals (FSM). If FSM are meant to benefit ‘poor kids’, out-of-work entitlement  is poor targeting indeed; 62% of children growing up below the poverty line come from households that have at least one adult in employment. Estimates suggest that around a third of schoolchildren living below the poverty line are not entitled to receive free meals, their parents are not on out-of-work benefits, rather they might be in part time or low paid work.

2013 presents an opportune moment to address this inadequacy. The introduction of Universal Credit will mean that all ‘out-of-work’ and ‘in-work’ benefits are combined. The current rules around entitlement have to be redesigned. This presents both opportunities but also real risks. Firstly and importantly, if entitlement remains inadequate children from low income families will miss out on hot, healthy lunches, with all of the knock on effects for their health and education. Children from lower income households often go hungry and have poorer health outcomes and educational attainment than their better off peers. FSM can help realise their right to food, and help close health and education gaps. Secondly, if we don’t get entitlement right, FSM could work against the stated intention of ‘making work pay’ that is driving the Universal Credit.  Setting an income threshold for entitlement introduces a big ‘cliff edge’ into family finances and could make families financially worse off for taking a job. Thresholds can mean that getting a small pay rise or taking on an extra shift could cost families dearly; if they move just above a threshold, they will lose £376 worth of FSM per child.

However, the report highlights a second type of inadequacy that affects the children who are entitled to FSM. In most secondary schools (and some primary schools) children receiving FSM get an “allowance” to buy their lunch at the canteen.

 However one in seven of the young people surveyed in this research said that their allowance did not allow them to buy a full meal.

 Young people from eight schools around England gave their lunch menus as evidence; a full meal could be purchased from their allowance from only 2 of the menus. For example, in one school the allowance given to FSM students was £2.00, but painfully the “meal deal” was £2.05. Most places gave an allowance that was enough to get a slice of pizza and a drink, or a main meal but nothing to drink. This inadequacy means that schools are breaching the regulatory guidelines that have so improved school food since the days of the Turkey Twizzler … but perversely, this breach only affects children who live well below the poverty line.

 Many students suggested that this lack of money, and the small size of their school meal left them hungry. One of our youngest respondents, who is under 11, said that “I don’t get a lot to eat, (I’m) always hungry after having dinner… As we don’t get much food that’s why mummy still cooks us a meal at home but soon as we get home we eat lots while dinner is cooking”. Another said “there’s not enough money allocated to us and I go home hungry most days.”

Inadequate amounts left a number of poor children in the difficult position of having to take back food, or pay for what they overspent on attempting to buy a healthy meal. One student detailed their concerns (about getting detention for buying fruit):

“I think that the system honestly is a bit crap because you don’t know how much you have spent and if you overspend you’re given detention and you have to pay back what we spent!”

The best way to make sure that poorer children enjoy a meal is to entitle all families who receive Universal Credit to FSM. While this would almost double current entitlement, such an investment is the only way to make sure the FSM scheme works.  The Department for Education will be launching a consultation into entitlement in the coming weeks, and when it does, we should be wary of options that replicate current inadequate entitlement. We also need to make sure that for their part, schools are pricing meals and providing allowances that make sure a Free School Meal is what is says on the tin.

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