Expand free school meals to combat rise in malnutrition, say health experts

Doctors and nurses report seeing hungry children on a daily basis as they urge government to act

Doctors and nurses have called for a major expansion of free school meals to combat the growing risk of malnutrition, obesity and other health conditions affecting children in low-income families hit by the cost of living crisis.

A letter signed by scores of clinicians and health experts said NHS professionals were seeing the impact of hunger and poor nutrition in their work every day following a recent doubling in food insecurity across the UK.

Extending free school meals would help to address growing evidence of clinical problems among a cohort of children living in poverty who were going hungry, missing out on healthy food and not eating regularly, the letter said.

Nearly 10 million adults and 4 million children in the UK experienced food insecurity in September as the cost of living crisis deepened, according to the Food Foundation. Millions reported skipping meals or going a whole day without eating, and half said they had cut down on fruit and vegetables.

One signatory, Martin Godfrey, a GP in south London, said he increasingly saw malnourished children. “We are seeing thin, pale children who lack the energy of a normal child. There isn’t much clinically we can do to help other than signpost parents to people and places that can. We all need to do more right now. Extending access to free school meals would make a huge difference.”

Another signatory, Jonathan Tomlinson, a GP in Hoxton, east London, said inadequate nutrition was manifesting as fatigue, recurrent infection and behavioural problems in youngsters. “One thing I do notice is that most children seem to have iron, folate and vitamin D deficiency and when I ask them, they don’t eat anything green.”

Dr Helen Stewart, a paediatrician, said: “We are seeing the impacts of poor nutrition every day, with both poor growth of deprived babies and children on the one hand, and rising child obesity on the other. Teachers are telling us about seeing hungry children in school and the impact on their wellbeing and learning.”

The letter urges ministers to extend free school meals to an extra 800,000 children on universal credit whose families are in poverty and unable to meet the cost of an adequate lunch but under current criteria are deemed not vulnerable enough to qualify for free meal provision.

Separately, Richard Walker, the managing director of the supermarket chain Iceland, said on Wednesday he wanted to see free school meals provision expanded “as a critical priority” to help combat rising food insecurity.

Walker, who sits on the prime minister’s business council and has ambitions to become a Tory MP, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that families with children were most at risk of going hungry and skipping meals.

“If our country is to succeed long term, we have got to make sure we have a healthy, focused, happy, engaged school population who have decent prospects, and that has to include vulnerable kids,” he said.

In England, all infant schoolchildren are entitled to free school meals from reception to year 2, but beyond that only children whose parents earn less than £7,400 a year are eligible. Both the Welsh and Scottish governments are committed to rolling out free school meals to all primary school pupils.

Some schools have described pupil hunger as the biggest single challenge they face this winter, with some having dipped into emergency cash reserves to feed pupils ineligible for free school meals. Teachers have told of desperate children stealing food from fellow students, eating rubbers, and even “pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox”.

A Department for Education spokesperson said:“We have expanded access to free school meals more than any other government in recent decades, which currently reach 1.9 million children. We are also investing up to £24m in our National School Breakfast Programme, which provides free breakfasts to children in schools in disadvantaged areas.”

Contributors

Patrick Butler and Rowena Mason

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How families on the breadline are ineligible for free school meals
Households in England must earn less than £7,400 a year before benefits and after tax to qualify, excluding 800,000 children in poverty

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

10, Nov, 2022 @5:00 PM

Article image
Support grows for Marcus Rashford's free school meals campaign
Politicians and celebrities of all stripes come out in support of plan rejected by government

Sally Weale, Patrick Butler and Heather Stewart

23, Oct, 2020 @7:49 AM

Article image
Free school meals scheme in one of UK's poorest areas faces axe
Funding cuts threaten project in Newham, east London, that feeds thousands of children

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

17, Dec, 2020 @7:12 PM

Article image
Nearly one in three children in north-east England on free school meals
Figures shows 10% rise in FSM across England and school leaders say real child poverty level is even higher

Richard Adams Education editor

09, Jun, 2022 @3:43 PM

Article image
School leaders report rise in pupils not on free meals going hungry
Increasing numbers of children cannot afford lunch and are coming to school without adequate clothes

Sally Weale Education correspondent

02, Dec, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Teachers reveal scale of pupils’ hunger as 100,000 frozen out of free school meals
Exclusive: Call for FSM income cap to be raised as children in England come to school with mouldy bread or even nothing

Sally Weale, Richard Adams and Patrick Butler

10, Nov, 2022 @7:02 PM

Article image
Over £1m owed by families in Scotland who cannot pay for school meals
Exclusive: Report for Aberlour children’s charity reveals scale of school meal debt for first time

Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

06, Jun, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
London council launches free school meals pilot scheme
Breakfast and lunch to be made available to all pupils regardless of family income

Diane Taylor

05, Jun, 2019 @5:18 PM

Article image
Marcus Rashford vows to keep up free meals fight after No 10 refusal
PM’s spokesman indicates government will not back calls for meals in school holidays

Simon Murphy Political correspondent

15, Oct, 2020 @2:48 PM

Article image
‘The benefit is massive’: the school offering free meals to all students
Urswick school in Hackney says pupils are thriving under its policy, while another school offers evening meals to families

Sally Weale and Richard Adams

10, Nov, 2022 @5:00 PM