One in seven parents of school children who are not receiving free school meals are struggling with the cost of food, a survey suggests.
At present, broadly only children from households earning less than £7,400 before benefits are eligible for free school meals. The Children’s Society fear that this threshold means many low-income families who miss out are struggling.
The charity polled 1,002 parents of state school children aged 5-16 in the UK in September.
Seven out of 10 parents (711) surveyed said that their oldest child did not receive free school meals.
These parents were estimated to spend an average of £21.54 on breakfast, lunch and snacks for their eldest child at school over a week.
One in seven of these respondents said they have been struggling with the cost of food during the school day since their child has returned to school following Covid-related closures.
If these figures are extrapolated to reflect the UK population, the Children’s Society estimates, it could mean 885,000 children are living in families who are struggling.
40% of respondents said they had cut down on food they bought for themselves in order to pay for school meals, while a fifth had borrowed money from friends and family.
17% said they had delayed making gas and electricity payments, while 5% said they had used a foodbank and 5% said they had borrowed from a commercial lender.
Overall, one in six parents said they were worried or very worried about covering the cost of meals and snacks for their children throughout the school year.
Mark Russell, Children’s Society chief executive, said: “No one likes the idea of a child going hungry, but we know that right now there are children across the country who are. We also know that the pandemic has only made the situation worse.
“The current threshold for free school meals is too low, it leaves many hard-working families, who earn just slightly above the cut off, but often still living in poverty, having to find the money to cover their child’s food during the school day.
The charity is calling for free school meals to be extended to all children whose families receive universal credit, and for the temporary extension to children in families with no recourse to public funds to be made permanent.
Richide, from London, said: “It helps a lot when they eat at school, they even have a free breakfast, they can go to school from 8 o’clock and have a free breakfast, so it’s only dinner I have to worry about. It makes a big difference to the shopping, what you have to spend on food.”
Another parent said: “I tell my kid to make sure they eat all their school meals as it may be the only meal they have. I often have nothing to eat and any food I do have I give to my kid as they only get one meal a day – I don’t have a meal many days.”
A Government spokesman said: “These findings are based on a survey of a tiny proportion of families. Official statistics show there are 200,000 fewer children living in absolute poverty since 2010.
“The Government has responded to the extraordinary challenges presented by the pandemic with an enormous package of support for families and children, including the unprecedented furlough and self-employment schemes – at a cost of £53 billion – to protect more than 12 million jobs.
“We have supported the most vulnerable by injecting an extra £9.3 billlion into the welfare safety net, as well as giving councils an additional £63 million to help families in financial difficulties with targeted interventions. Meanwhile, Free School Meals already support the learning of 1.4 million students from the lowest income families.”