Public health groups urge Rishi Sunak to widen free school meals programme

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

Eight hundred thousand more children in England from deprived families should get free school meals as part of an assault on food poverty, public health experts have demanded.

They are urging Rishi Sunak to increase the number of children and young people entitled to a free lunch at school from 1.9 million to 2.7 million by including all families receiving universal credit.

Expansion should be funded by imposing new levies on producers of unhealthy foods and drinks, they say, based on the success of the sugar tax on fizzy drinks the Conservatives introduced in 2018.

A cross-party group of MPs and peers, children’s charities and food campaigners are backing the call from public health groups, which is contained in a letter to the prime minister.

They want him to scrap the rule that prevents children from households with an income of more than £7,400 a year from getting free school meals, even if their family is very poor.

The letter to Sunak says: “In October 2022 there were an estimated 800,000 children living in poverty who did not have access to free school meals. This is unacceptable.”

It points out that the devolved administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff plan to offer all primary schoolchildren a free hot lunch by the end of next year. In contrast, however, eligibility in England is still restricted to young people living in households receiving £7,400 or less.

It is “imperative” that Sunak axes the £7,400 cap and instead changes the rules so that any child who is part of a family eligible to receive universal credit can receive free school meals, the letter says.

The letter has been organised by four charities – the Faculty of Public Health, the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Royal Society for Public Health and the School and Public Health Nurses Association.

Other signatories include: the Church of England bishops of Durham and Gloucester; Lord Krebs, the inaugural chair of the Food Standards Agency; Lady Boycott, the former chair of the London Food Board; and Barnardo’s, Save the Children and Magic Breakfast charities.

Politicians who have also signed the letter include: Lord Moynihan, the ex-Tory sports minister; Tim Farron, the ex-leader of the Liberal Democrats; Caroline Lucas, Westminster’s sole Green MP; and several former Labour ministers, including Lady Armstrong and Ben Bradshaw.

The coalition is also asking the prime minister to double from 2,500 to 5,000 the number of schools offering free breakfasts to poor pupils through the national school breakfast programme.

“Current Department for Education funding for the programme only reaches a quarter of children and young people in the most deprived schools in England. [It] urgently needs expansion to cover a higher proportion of these disadvantaged pupils, with a long-term plan to cover all disadvantaged pupils in schools,” they say.

Sunak should also expand the number of pregnant women and families with a child under four who are eligible to receive support to buy healthy food through the Healthy Start scheme by again extending eligibility to all families on universal credit who have a young child, the letter says.

“As the cost-of-living crisis bites, many families across the UK are currently struggling with the reality of food poverty, unable to meet even their most basic needs,” said Prof Kevin Fenton, president of the Faculty of Public Health.

The three schemes together act as “a vital lifeline” for poor families. “But with too many children and families unable to access these services, government is missing an opportunity to firmly address the reality and impacts of child food poverty, which impairs the lives and life chances of disadvantaged children and young people across the UK,” added Fenton.

The government would not have to pay for addressing food poverty in these ways if instead it brought in “new targeted levies on unhealthy food and drink”, perhaps similar to the salt and sugar levy recommended by the government’s National Food Strategy in 2021, the letter adds.

Sharon White, the chief executive of the School and Public Health Nurses Association, said: “School nurses are witnessing and being asked to support a worrying number of families who cannot feed their children adequately due to the cost-of-living crisis; children are turning up to school cold, tired, hungry, worried, sad and, as a result, unable to learn.”

A government spokesperson said: “Over a third of pupils in England currently receive free school meals and we have just announced a further investment in the national school breakfast programme - extending the programme for another year backed by up to £30m.”