Free school meals will be offered to all primary school pupils across London for a year under plans by Sadiq Khan to tackle what he said was a failure by ministers to step up support during the cost of living crisis.
The move will come into force from September, saving families about £440 for every child and benefiting 270,000 children, City Hall estimates.
The mayor, who himself received free school meals as a boy, said he hoped the move would help “reduce the stigma that can be associated with being singled out as low-income” and boost take-up among families who needed the help most.
Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren live in poverty but are not eligible for free school meals because of the government’s “restrictive” eligibility criteria, the mayor’s office said.
A household on universal credit must make less than £7,400 a year – after tax and not including benefits – to be eligible.
Khan’s one-off proposal, worth £130m and funded from higher-than-expected business rates income, is designed to fill that gap by making free meals universal across London primary schools.
“The cost of living crisis means families and children across our city are in desperate need of additional support,” Khan said, before a visit to his old school, Fircroft primary in Tooting, south London.
“I have repeatedly urged the government to provide free school meals to help already stretched families, but they have simply failed to act.”
Khan said he knew “from personal experience that free school meals are a lifeline”, as his parents relied on them to give his family “a little extra breathing room financially”, and free meals could be “gamechanging” for others struggling to make ends meet.
The mayor, who has said he intends to seek a third term in 2024, said the free meals would ensure parents “aren’t worrying about how they’re going to feed their children” and would stop them going hungry in the classroom so they could better concentrate on their studies.
Charities and unions welcomed the move. Victoria Benson, the chief executive of the single parent charity Gingerbread, called it a “huge relief” given many children had “gone without basic essentials because household budgets have been stretched beyond breaking point”.
Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, described it as a “much-needed lifeline” and hit out at a “decade of economic mismanagement from the government”.
Some London boroughs – including Islington, Newham, Southwark and Tower Hamlets – already offer free primary school meals universally, and Westminster started offering them for 18 months from January.
The average cost of a hot school meal for a primary school child was estimated by City Hall to be between £2.25 and £2.35; because children are expected to attend school for 190 days a year, the saving per child for families is projected to be about £440.
An official announcement will be made on 23 February, as part of Khan’s final budget before the mayoral election scheduled for 2 May 2024.
A Department for Education spokesperson said that since 2010, the number of children receiving a free meal at school had increased by more than 2 million, given the introduction of universal infant free school meals and “generous protections” put in place as benefit recipients move across to universal credit.
They stressed that more than a third of pupils in England received free school meals in education settings, compared with 1.1 million in 2009, with investment in the National School Breakfast Programme to extend it for another year.