Exclusive: Free school meals for all primary school pupils in London, says Mayor, in victory for our special investigation
The Mayor of London is to announce a bold emergency package to extend free school meals to every primary school child in London for one year to help poor families through the cost of living crisis.
Sadiq Khan’s £130 million scheme will fund the 270,000 state primary school children in London who do not already receive free school meals, of whom an estimated 100,000 live in poverty.
It marks a major victory for our School Hunger Special Investigation in which we highlighted the plight of the 210,000 primary and secondary pupils in London who live in households on universal credit but miss out on free school meals - because their household income, excluding benefits, is over the threshold of £7,400 a year.
This low threshold applies irrespective of the number of children in the family and is causing deep hardship among families struggling with the spiralling cost of living.
The Standard’s investigation exposed how some hungry children were so desperate, they were stealing food from the school canteen and supermarkets to eat.
The Mayor, who has repeatedly called on Government to extend free school meals to all children in poverty, said his scheme will be funded out of higher-than-expected business rates and council tax collections and will be for the 2023/2024 academic year only.
City Hall said it would save families £440 per child across the year and would extend to all primary school children “so as to reduce the stigma that can be associated with being singled out as low income”.
The saving of £440 per child is based on an average cost of a hot meal of £2.30 over 190 school days.
Mr Khan heavily criticised the Government for their “inaction” and made it clear that it will be for the Government to step in after that time.
He said: “I have repeatedly urged the Government to provide free school meals to help already stretched families, but they have simply failed to act. This is why I’m stepping forward with an emergency £130m scheme that will ensure every single primary pupil in the capital receives free school meals.”
Around 210,000 pupils in London – across years 3 to 11 - live in households that rely on universal credit but miss out on free school meals, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.
Around half of them are expected to be covered by the Mayor’s scheme.
It still leaves around 700,000 children in poverty in England not receiving free school meals - including approximately 100,000 in London’s secondary schools and 600,000 outside of the capital.
Charity, union bosses and campaigners welcomed the initiative. Victoria Benson, chief executive of Gingerbread, the single parent charity, said: “The cost of living crisis has been brutal for single parents and has meant that children have gone without basic essentials because household budgets have been stretched beyond breaking point.
“We have heard from many single parents that they have had to go without food. It will be a huge relief that their child will now be fed at school and we welcome the Mayor’s initiative.”
Kevin Courtney, Joint Gen Secretary of the National Education Union, said the Major had shown the way for Government to act.
“The Government must now end its inaction and commit to funding free school meals for all in primary across the rest of the country, and long term,” he said.
“This is a much-needed lifeline for families experiencing hardship following a decade of economic mismanagement from the Government.
“It will help families navigate the cost-of-living crisis and ensure all children are fed during the school day. Children who have access to a healthy, hot meal, every day, are better able to focus, connect with their peers and build bright futures.”
Research by accounting firm PwC published by the Evening Standard has shown that investment in free school meals would yield a net economic benefit to society of £2.45 billion over 20 years.
PwC calculated that the cost would be £6.44 billion over two decades but would lead to benefits in educational attainment, mental and physical health impacts and productivity of £8.9 billion - a net benefit of £2.45BN.
Barbara Crowther of the Children’s Food Campaign said: “We applaud the Mayor for announcing this vital nutritional safety net for every single primary school child in London.
However, healthy school food for all must not just be an emergency measure, it should be a core part of a fully inclusive education system for the long term.”
Dame Emma Thompson said: “This initiative could not be more timely. The fact that it is needed at all is testament to the damaging policies of the last 20 years.
“It is essential that during this year we fight for the right of our children to a proper meal at school.”
The Mayor’s scheme is proposed as part of his final budget which will be considered by the London Assembly on 23 February.
A City Hall spokesperson said: “The final Budget takes into account that council tax and business rates returns from local authorities are higher than were forecast in the Mayor’s draft Budget proposals earlier this year.
“This additional proposed spending is principally driven by business rates due to the stronger economic position of central London than previously reported in prior years.”