'You can't learn on an empty stomach': Free school meals debate labelled 'disgrace'

The government's estimates suggest that automatic enrolment could capture the 11% of eligible pupils who have not applied for free school meals.

More children should be made eligible for free school meals, councils have said, amid fears that half a million children could fall into poverty next year.

Labour's David Lammy labelled the situation a "disgrace" as he backed calls from the Local Government Association to expand free school meals and simplify the sign-up system so more than a million more pupils can access them.

The shadow foreign secretary told ITV News he is "terribly concerned about young people turning up to school, unable to have breakfast, unable to have lunch and their parents suffering... because of cuts to Universal Credit" and the cost-of living crisis.

He said people are being "plunged into poverty" by increasing National Insurance contributions and the rising cost of fuel.

"Against that backdrop it is important to review how we are meeting the needs of the poorest students across the country.

"Despite these tough times we need young people to achieve their potential - the future of the country depends on it - and frankly, you cannot learn if your stomach is empty."

It comes after a think tank calculated that 1.3 million Britons, including 500,000 children, are set to fall below the poverty line next year, as the cost of living rises.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils, has said automatic enrolment for free school meals (FSM) should be introduced, while eligibility for FSM should be expanded for all pupils who meet the income criteria, regardless of their family circumstances.

The government is expected to publish its proposals on food strategy shortly with new plans on how to tackle inequalities in access to healthy food, and the LGA is calling for its recommendations to be implemented.

Although the government has data on which pupils are eligible, parents currently have to apply for FSM through their local authority or through their child’s academy school.

Government estimates suggest automatic enrolment could capture the 11% of eligible pupils who have not applied for FSM, which would equate to 215,000 pupils in England under the current eligibility criteria, analysis by the LGA and Child Poverty Action Group shows.

The LGA said that automatic enrolment would also generate tens of millions of pounds in additional pupil premium funding for schools, as this is allocated based on the number of free school meals claims per school.

If the income threshold for FSM was changed and immigration limitations on eligibility were lifted permanently, a further 1.1 million pupils could benefit from free school meals, “for example if the threshold was raised to £20,000 and extended to include those families who are undocumented or with no recourse to public funds, as recommended in the strategy”, the LGA said.

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Councillor Shaun Davies, chair of the LGA’s Resources Board, said: “Rising food, fuel and other costs affect everybody, but particularly low-income households with children who rely on extra support to make ends meet.

“Given these pressures, it is absolutely essential that all those who are eligible can get the help they need, including access to free school meals, at a time when we know the price of food and the general cost of living are spiralling".

“Streamlining and removing the red tape in the applications process, so that councils get given the information they need, is vital if we are to ensure no child misses out on a healthy meal,” he added.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said extending the criteria for those qualifying for FSM was a necessity.

"Demand has been growing for years, but first with the pandemic and now with the cost-of-living crisis gripping families across the country it is needed more than ever", she said.

“While families living in poverty need far more wide-ranging support than they currently receive, free school meals are a lifeline. For many children it will be the only meal they are getting in the day. If the government’s intentions of ‘levelling up’ are to be taken seriously, then this is one area they must not overlook", she added.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want to ensure every eligible child has access to free school meals, which is why we have expanded access to them more than any other government in recent decades.

“We encourage schools to help children sign up for free school meals and work with councils to make the checking process more straightforward.

“We are continually considering what further steps we could take to improve the take-up of FSM, and welcome ideas and contributions on the best ways to do that.”