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Britain's cost of living crisis is leaving children hungry

Empty lunch boxes: Britain's cost of living crisis is leaving children hungry
5 min read
16 November, 2022
The cost of living crisis has meant British pupils from low-income families are facing a brutal winter – should they eat or skip their meals and be hungry at school? With ongoing inflation, the current FSM policy is redundant and morally bankrupt.

When the 'Free School Meals' government's scheme began in 1906, local education authorities were, for the first time, given the right to provide meals to students and pupils from low-income families free of charge.

The right to free meals became the right to a full education. But a recent investigation by the London Evening Standard and the Independent revealed a hunger crisis among children in families who live in poverty but are not eligible for free school meals.

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According to Byline Times, an estimated 800,000 children in England who live under the poverty line are spending the school day feeling hungry because they do not meet the government eligibility criteria for free school meals.

Currently, the British government provides free school meals to all children in Reception, Year 1 and year 2 across the UK. Children who need free school meals after age seven can only get them if their parents qualify for benefits and their family income does not exceed £7,400 after tax.

According to the British charity Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) the ineffective Free School Meals Policy leaves the kids hungry and the cost of living crisis will even worsen things.

The recent CPAG report estimates that as many as one million children in poverty miss out on free school meals (FSM) in the UK. The number of children in poverty is alarming and the proportion of kids not getting free school meals varies. In Wales and England, as many as 42% and 37% of kids living in poverty miss out on free meals.

The ongoing cost of living crisis has meant that campaigners expect skyrocketing inflation and increasing energy bills to push even more families into a poverty trap.

Restrictive eligibility criteria and inadequate provision of universal free school meals mean that even more children in poverty miss out on their daily meals.

To qualify for the Free School Meals, households on Universal Credit (monthly low-income families benefit to cover living costs) must earn less than £7,400 a year to be eligible for free school meals, regardless of the number of children in the family.

Members of the National Education Union and their supporters protest outside the Department for Education to demand free school meals for disadvantaged children during school holidays [Getty Images]

Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said: "The current income threshold for free school meals is too low. As a result, many low-income families don't qualify for free school meals. This needs to be fixed. As a first step, eligibility could be extended to all families – out of work or in work – in receipt of Universal Credit."

With the cost of living crisis and skyrocketing inflation, low-income British families might hardly cope this winter. "As inflation breaches 11%, millions of parents are worried sick about how they will provide for their kids this winter.

"Now more than ever, eligibility for free school meals must be expanded so that every child in a family on universal credit at least has a guaranteed meal in the middle of the day. That's the bare minimum needed to protect children from the worst effects of an economic crisis triggered by government," warned Alison Garnham, CPAG's CEO.

But there are London's boroughs that keep up with the work that needs to be done and prepare the kids for a harsh winter.

Stephen Timms MP is one of the most dedicated MPs in the British Parliament and a local campaigner against child poverty in one of the most deprived boroughs in London – the London Borough of Newham.

Newham is a borough where poverty smacks you in your face. But there is one thing that makes Newham stand up from the others. The Newham Council has launched a pioneering campaign where all local kids are entitled to free school meals, no matter their family income.

"In Newham, it has been the longstanding policy of the Council that all primary school children are entitled to free school meals. As a result, school meals taken up in Newham are extremely high. This policy greatly benefits children and families, especially in the current Cost of Living Crisis. I want Newham's policy taken up across the country," Timms tells The New Arab.

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Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) estimate that extending the means-tested FSMs to every kid in the UK and making the FSM a universal free school meal for all children in the UK would cost the British budget approximately £1.75 billion.

Thanks to the recent campaign of the British footballer Marcus Rashford, children in families with NRPF conditions are now eligible for free school meals.

Still, the battle is ongoing, with the current Conservatives' cuts and social welfare spending limited to the minimum.

Sadly it is British children who are paying the price with their empty launch boxes. With the ineffective FSM policy and low-income families that are hardly coping with skyrocketing inflation, we can expect that child poverty and hunger will reap their harvest even harder in the world of the cost of living crisis.

Karolina Króliczek is a local reporter for Newham Voices, a local community newspaper based in East London. She is also the founder of PR Insight, the first bilingual Polish PR/Digital PR agency based in London.

Follow her on Twitter: @KroliczekK