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Covid-19 drives Free School Meal registration surge

Children eating school dinner

This morning (12th October 2020) The Food Foundation released new data that reveals an extremely high demand for Free School Meals this autumn.

Data collected as part of the joint #EndChildFoodPoverty campaign with Marcus Rashford, acquired through a sample survey conducted by Childwise, shows that 29% (equivalent to 2.2 million children) of children aged 8-17 years old are registered for Free School Meals. An astounding 42% of these children (900,000) are newly registered to the scheme.

We at Food for Life recognise the far-reaching benefits of a hot school meal, providing children with the nutrition and energy they need to learn, play and grow. For many children, their hot school lunch can be the only hot meal of the day – and it is vital that the Government adequately funds this.

Despite this major spike in demand, only 32% of all children aged 8-17 say they are eating hot meals from the canteen – and even more concerning, 3% of children (180,000) say they have skipped lunch entirely. Less than half (45%) of children reported that their canteens were running as usual with social distancing.

These new figures paint a concerning picture, and highlight the need for Government to act swiftly and effectively to ensure adequate food provision to those who are most in need – a need that is proven to be growing in the wake of the Covid-19 financial impact . Worst-case projections from the Office for Budgetary Responsibility suggest a rise in unemployment to 13.2%. by the first quarter of 2021.

Rob Percival, Head of Policy – Food and Health at Soil Association commented:

“The Covid-19 crisis is edging a growing number of families into food insecurity, bringing into focus the importance of a healthy, hot school lunch. For many children this will be the only hot meal they receive each day – the shift towards cold meals is concerning, and cannot be allowed to continue.

“With so many children reliant on Free School Meals, a hot meal service must be prioritised. Headteachers must ensure that they’re talking to their catering team, and the Government should encourage schools to provide hot meals where possible. We know that schools are facing unprecedented challenges, but cold meals could exacerbate inequalities in health and attainment. Cooks and caterers must be supported to deliver the hot meals that children need and deserve.”

Food for Life has submitted a Comprehensive Spending Review representation in alliance with several other organisations including The Food Foundation. We are calling on the Government to invest in the three following areas, in line with the National Food Strategy (NFS) recommendations:

  • Expand eligibility for free school meals (FSM) to include children from all families receiving Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits)​
  • Extend the Holiday Activity and Food (HAF) programme to all areas in England, to make summer holiday support available to all children receiving FSM
  • Increase the value of Healthy Start (HS) vouchers to £4.25 per week and extend the scheme to every pregnant woman and parent/guardian in receipt of Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits)​

Read more about our representation to the Comprehensive Spending Review here.