On the face of it, Brian and his teenage daughter are textbook survivors of poverty and food insecurity. He is a single parent with a long-term health condition; he cannot work and claims a health-related unemployment benefit. His income is pitifully low, and the family food budget a constant, intense struggle. But he has been told they cannot claim free school meals.
Mel, 44, is in full-time work and six months ago earned enough to come off universal credit, the first time in her adult life she hasn’t relied on benefits. But only once during that time was her household income temporarily low enough for her children to claim free school meals. It’s nice to be off benefits, she says; but with things as they are it doesn’t really make the problem of affording school lunches easier.
Stacey, 36, has two school-age children, works full-time, and is on universal credit. One is still young enough to qualify for a universal free school meal, but in less than a year she will join her older sibling in having to pay for school lunch. Stacey is not sure if it will be possible to stretch to the £5-a-day or so cost of two school lunches, and if so how. But she is not eligible for means-tested free school meals.
The stresses articulated by Brian, Mel and Stacey (all participants in the Changing Realities project tracking the experiences of people on low incomes) are driving calls for an extension of free school meals. They are seen as a neat way of extending help to low-income families caught by accelerating food insecurity and soaring energy bills – the cost of living crisis described by Stacey as “a cyclone you just can’t get out of”.
To be eligible for free school meals in England a household must earn less than a threshold of £7,400 a year before benefits and after tax. That means 800,000 children currently in poverty are deemed too well off to qualify. The threshold has been frozen since 2018, while prices have risen by 16%. Had it risen in line with inflation, 110,000 more children would be eligible.
Even if you do qualify, the system creates a cliff edge where even a marginal uplift in household income – extra hours or a new job – means you may lose the free lunch, and struggle to afford its replacement. A single parent with three kids for example, would lose £1,410 a year from losing free school meals, according to the Liberal Democrats, but would have to earn an extra £3,133 to recoup the cost of the meals. However, some transitional protections exist to enable individual children to retain free school meal eligibility, even if their household income subsequently improves and takes them above the threshold.
Hence school lunchbox horror stories, of kids who are too poor to bring a healthy lunch, but apparently too rich to get a free meal, turning up at school with a single chocolate bar for lunch, or slices of mouldy bread, or even an empty lunchbox (ashamed of their poverty, they try to fake lunch). One in five UK school lunchboxes typically lack vegetables or salad, and 50% lack fruit, a recent academic study found.
These lurid tales suggest the free school meals safety net could be a big help to many more families. Why not expand provision to the children of all parents on universal credit (or equivalent benefits) the argument goes. This would pick up households in poverty, guarantee the children a vital nutritional boost and give hard-pressed parents a financial and mental breather.
Mel says her family is better off than they were but still sometimes struggle financially to stretch to every school lunch; even if the government were to extend free school meals to everyone on universal credit they would not be eligible. Why not give every pupil a free meal, regardless of income? It makes sense, she reckons. “If you don’t have food in your child’s belly they can’t learn, and this is a benefit that is going straight into your child’s belly.”
Brian and his daughter have been in the cost of living storm for some time. During Covid he didn’t qualify for the £20 a week uplift because he was on a “legacy” benefit. He exists mainly on sandwiches, and skips meals so his daughter can take lunch money to school and cook a plate of pasta some evenings. Breakfast is two slices of toast. He keeps a biscuit in the cupboard to help manage his diabetes. The heating stays off, and so do the lights, mostly. “I don’t even drink tea and coffee,” he says.
Slightly bewilderingly, the household does not qualify for free school meals. Some years ago he says he was advised by the Department for Work and Pensions that his daughter was ineligible for free school meals because of the nature of the benefit he receives (contributory employment and support allowance). A charity seems to have subsequently confirmed this. He is now going to get fresh advice. It would be worth about £430 a year, which he says, with understatement, “would be very helpful.”
Stacey’s well-drilled shopping routine (only fruit and vegetables are non-negotiable purchases) means they get by for now, only just, especially when her salary fluctuates. Her kids get a cooked meal “most of the time” which is more than a lot of other kids. But it can be a close-run thing. Why not make free school meals universally free to all, at least at primary school age, she asks. Things are now so tough even better-off families are struggling, and that sad state of affairs, she says, “does not feel like it is ever going to change or ever end”.
• This article was amended on 11 November 2022 to correct a detail about the findings of the academic study on UK school lunchboxes and to refer to transitional protections for retention for free school meal eligibility.