The government is refusing campaigners’ calls to extend the eligibility of free school meals despite the devasting impact of the cost of living crisis.
The Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, senior Labour and Tory MPs have backed the call to widen support to the 800,000 children not able to get free school meals because their family’s income, excluding benefits, is more than £7,400 a year after tax.
But a Conservative education minister said the government “does not have plans to assess the potential impact of changes in the cost of living” on pupils in England who cannot access free school meals.
Answering a parliamentary question tabled by the Liberal Democrats, the outgoing schools minister Kelly Tolhurst said the government “believes that the current level is correct”.
The Conservative MP said it enables some children “to benefit from free schools meals, while remaining affordable and deliverable for schools”.
Daisy Cooper, deputy leader of the Lib Dems, said the refusal to extend free school meals was “shameful”, adding: “Parents are being priced out of nutritious meals and Conservatives have failed to offer even a scintilla of support.
She said: “The new education secretary, Gillian Keegan, must immediately review eligibility for free school meals to ensure the most vulnerable children aren’t going hungry.”
The Independent has partenered with the Food Foundation for the Feed the Future campaign to call for extention of free school meals to all children in poverty in England. More than 200,000 people have now signed our petition.
A study by PwC showed that the cost of extending free school meals is outweighed by the health and attainment gains. The accounting firm reported a net benefit to the economy of £2.4bn over 20 years.
A growing number of families are struggling to get enough, as the latest food inflation figures showed some of basic essentials soared by up to 65 per cent in the last year.
A joint investigation by The Independent and Evening Standard earlier this month found that some desperate pupils are stealing food from local supermarkets and the school canteen to stave off hunger.
Jo Ralling of the Food Foundation said hundreds of thousands of children were turning up to school hungry – affecting their concentration and behaviour. “As the cost-of-living crisis takes hold, this situation will only get worse over the winter,” she said.
The campaigner added: “The Feed the Future campaign is calling on people to write to their MPs to encourage the new government to act quickly to protect our most vulnerable children.”