One million children could be missing out on free school meals

New research suggests that 1 million children could be missing out on free school meals. Liz Emerson, IF Co-founder, explains why this is yet another intergenerational unfairness facing younger generations.

Free School Meals

According to a new report by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), in partnership with  Birmingham and York Universities, 1 million children could be ineligible for free school meals (FSMs) and potentially suffer from hunger throughout the school day.

This is because FSMs are a means-tested benefit. All children up until Year 2 receive free school meals. From then on, the benefit is only available to those families on Universal Credit that earn less than £7,400 a year. There are also large differences in eligibility across the UK. In Scotland the earnings threshold is £7,320 while in Northern Ireland it is much higher at £14,000. 


For obvious reasons, such as the locking down of society and subsequent closure of businesses, COVID-19 has increased the financial hardship of many families, and according to the researchers, government statistics revealed a large rise in FSMs eligibility in England and Wales.

Higher unemployment, reduced working hours and lower wages, have all conspired to place additional pressure on families who have had to face higher utility and cost-of-living bills by having to remain at home more often throughout the pandemic. The researchers found that 36% of school-aged children across the UK are living in poverty but still ineligible for FSMs. 

It is worth noting that the government did introduce additional COVID-19 specific FSMs’ funds for eligible schools’ students who were at home during term time, but that programme was closed once children returned to school.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) also permitted further education providers of 16-19 year-olds to apply for further allocations of funding for those further education students on free meals but that was a miserable £3.50 per eligible student per week). 

Holiday hunger

While FSMs provide all-important calories and energy during term time, children from poorer families should not have to face hunger during the school holidays. Back in 2017, so well before the pandemic hit, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger, was told that 3 million children risked being hungry in the school holidays.

During the pandemic, and thanks to massive lobbying by child poverty activists, the government introduced a £429 million COVID Local Support Grant from December 2020 until 30 September 2021 as well as a £220 million Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programme.

The programme offered free places to children who are eligible for free school meals for a minimum of 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, for 6 weeks a year. This would cover 4 weeks in the summer, and a week’s worth of provision in each of the Easter and Christmas holidays. 

Universal Credit 

The decision by the government to boost Universal Credit payments by £9 billion as part of the £400 billion COVID-19 support package helped many families and young people through the pandemic. That boost is also now coming to an end, in spite of more than 100 organisations, including IF, calling for the £20/week uplift to stay. 

Intergenerational unfairness

The means-testing of children living in poverty is yet another example of how differently, and we suggest unfairly, the government treats different age groups in our society. According to recently published Intergenerational Foundation research, well before the pandemic the government was spending £6,000 more on each person over retirement age than each child.

Not only that, but the gap in per capita spending had doubled over the previous 19 years. In fact, according to our figures, the government spends 45% more on servicing public sector pension interest payments than it spends on child benefits. 

Universality, but only for the old

Our welfare state system is now based on means-testing. From child benefit to housing benefit, through to Universal Credit and Free School Meals, working-age generations and their young families, are means-tested before they can access government support. 

It seems particularly intergenerationally unfair therefore, that older people, who are well below the State Pension Age (SPA) and therefore still working and earning, should not be means-tested like other generations. An example would be the fact that once a person reaches the age of 60 years they no longer have to pay for their prescriptions. With children going hungry at school and at home, would it be so unfair to treat all generations equitably by reducing the many universal freebies for the not-so-old and spend those savings on the young?

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Photo by Anthony Murygin on Unsplash