Cumbria County Council leader calls on government to increase free school meals

The action comes after Cumbria County Council provided an extra £1.5million to schools in December for school meals. Credit: PA Images

Cumbria County Council leader Stewart Young has called on the government to take action on free school meals amid the ongoing cost of living crisis.

A letter has been sent from the council to the government calling on action to be taken on three key issues.

They are to:

  • Increase the funding allowed for free school meals in line with inflation. As inflation has driven up costs, schools have been forced to meet the shortfall from elsewhere in their budget, or in some cases compromise on the quantity or quality of food offered, the council said.

  • Ensure funding matches changes in the number of pupils eligible for free school meals in year. Currently funding is based on the number of eligible pupils at one point in the year. In Cumbria is 2020-21, the number of eligible children increased by 989 during the year. While those children received support straight away, their schools had to manage within their predetermined budgets, putting other areas of their budget under pressure.

  • Extend eligibility for free school meals to all children under 16 living in a household with an income of less than £20,000.

Councillor Young said: “Urgent action is needed on free school meals.

"The government is simply not doing enough, and it is the most vulnerable pupils who are losing out.

"Ensuring funding rises with inflation is an obvious first step, and making funding respond to changing numbers of eligible pupils could easily be done.

"The £1.5 million we allocated late last year was an attempt to plug the gap left by government, but we know it’s a sticking plaster. 

“Our call to extend free school eligibility also makes sense, given the overwhelming evidence of the importance of nutritious food in schools on pupil health and how they do in school.

“The Secretary of State has the power to make all of these things happen. I hope she will see the sense in what we are proposing and take action.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We understand the pressures many households are under, that is why we are supporting more children and young people than ever before.

“Over a third of pupils in England currently receive free school meals in education settings and we have just announced a further investment in the National School Breakfast Programme, extending the programme for another year backed by up to £30million.”

“We have acted on soaring energy costs through the Energy Price Guarantee, saving a typical household over £900 this winter.

"The Energy Bills Support Scheme is also providing a £400 discount to millions of households this winter, further support is available for the most vulnerable who will receive £1,200 each this year.”  

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