By Sam Ord
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2809

Soaring numbers of children on free school meals shows poverty on the rise

Hungry children find it hard to concentrate and learn
Issue 2809
Children in blue school uniform crowd around people serving lunch

Free school meals are often the main food a child will eat in a day (Picture: Cheshire East council on Flickr)

The number of school children eligible for free school meals has risen by almost half in the last three years from less than 1.3 million to 1.9 million. According to government figures, 22.5 percent now qualify. The statistics are more grim evidence of the march of poverty in Britain.

The school-provided food is desperately needed. Alicia, a primary school teaching assistant in the West Midlands told Socialist Worker, “Lots of children come into school hungry. We have a breakfast club that used to be just a couple of dozen children, but now it is much busier. The kids would just use it maybe twice a month, now many are using it daily.”

Michael, a teacher in south London, told Socialist Worker, “Children coming into school hungry has an effect on them having a good day, socialising with their friends and there’s a shame around it.”

Children from Irish Traveller families were most likely to qualify (63 percent), followed by Gypsy/Roma pupils (52 percent, and youngsters of mixed Black Caribbean/White heritage (42 percent). And for many children, free school meals end in the school holidays.

Soaring inflation and the rising cost of living hit millions of people.  The Food Foundation discovered a 57 percent jump in the proportion of households cutting back on food or missing meals altogether in just three months. In April, 7.3 million adults said they had gone without food. 

Alicia added, “We are very lucky to be able to provide free school meals, hungry children don’t learn.” She added that the hardship for students began as “parents were furloughed in the pandemic”. Many parents who previously just about survived were forced to take a pay cut. Now many working parents are struggling with rising bills and food costs.

Staff at Alicia’s school have stopped asking children if they’re going on holiday. She described the situation as “depressing”. Michaels’s school has also stopped asking for a £1 donation for certain events. 

NEU union joint general secretary, Kevin Courtney said, “These are appalling figures and a clear indication that the cost of living crisis is plunging more and more families into desperate straits. 

“The biggest hindrance to a child succeeding at school is poverty. Our members know all too well the impact poverty has on learning and hunger is one of the worst problems. And there are many other children in our schools who are hungry whose families do not qualify for free school meals.” 

The NEU wants all families receiving Universal Credit to be eligible for free school meals. Resistance to the real terms cuts in pay, benefits and pensions is urgent. 

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