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Dec 5th, 2022

Free School Meals For All: The fight to keep kids fed at school

By Hannah Graham

38 Degrees has joined forces with The Mirror and the National Education Union’s Free School Meals For All campaign to make sure no primary school child goes hungry in class

Imagine this: you’re seven years old and excited for your next year at ‘big school’. Things have been tricky at home because your family is finding it harder to afford things – the heating might not be on, even when it’s cold; you or your parents might be missing meals, or cutting back on how much you eat. 

At least you know you’ll get a hearty, warm lunch at school – just as you’ve had every school day for the last three years. But this year, things are different. You’re no longer automatically entitled to a free school meal – leaving your parents facing a huge new bill. Maybe that means they can only afford to get you one school meal a week – like Alishah, whose parents shared their story with BBC News last week. Or maybe you find yourself chewing on a rubber, or pretending to eat from an empty lunchbox, as headteachers have reported seeing their pupils do.  

This bleak picture is a heartbreaking reality in many of our schools. That’s because, in England, children are only guaranteed a free school meal up to Year 2; once they hit Year 3 (age seven), that all changes. Only parents on certain benefits can claim free meals for children aged seven and up, and the criteria are strict: for example, families on Universal Credit are only entitled to them if they have a household income of less than £7,400 a year. 

The 38 Degrees movement has already been fighting tirelessly on this crucial issue. Last week, we handed the Government the names of nearly 100,000 people demanding action to expand free school meals to every child whose family is on Universal Credit – a move which would impact almost one million children. 

But with prices still soaring and more and more families struggling, we knew we needed to go even bigger on this campaign to help even more children. 

The cost of living catastrophe is hitting nearly everyone, but our research suggests that things are especially tough for parents. In a poll carried out for us in October, 78% of parents with more than two children said they’d already had to cut back on essentials like groceries, compared to 54% of non-parents. Asked about the year ahead, 36% of parents with at least one child said they were worried they might have to turn to a foodbank for help – rising to 45% among those with more than two kids at home.  

More and more parents struggling to afford food means more and more children going to school hungry. And with prices still rising, things will only get worse – unless the Government acts now.

The good news is, there’s a simple solution: a guaranteed meal for every single primary school pupil, so every child has the best possible chance to learn. 

It’s a bold solution, but it’s one with plenty of support. The National Education Union (NEU) secured support for their call from the likes of the Mayor of London, the British Medical Association and broadcaster Gary Linekar. Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror launched a campaign on the issue and published a poll showing 74% of Brits would back free school meals for all primary children. We know it’s possible, too: Scotland already provides free school meals to children in Primary 5 (age between eight and 10), while Wales has pledged to provide them to every primary school child by 2024.

We, the 38 Degrees movement, spotted a crucial opportunity to add the public’s voice and make the call to stop kids starving in our schools a deafening one. That’s why we teamed up with The Mirror, along with the NEU’s Free School Meals For All campaign, and launched a new petition urging the Prime Minister to keep every single primary school child fed at school. 

A screen shot showing a petition urging the Prime Minister to extend free school meals to every primary school child, signed by 33,029 people

With this bigger, bolder petition, we can add yet more voices to a powerful movement of teachers, families, and Mirror readers nationwide – sending Rishi Sunak a message he simply can’t ignore.

Over the weekend, The Mirror reported on the petition as part of their campaign, and more than 33,000 people added their names. But our work doesn’t stop here. We’ll keep ramping up pressure on the Government, sharing the heart wrenching stories of parents and teachers and amplifying the demands of a national movement, until the Prime Minister commits to feeding every primary school in England.

Add your name here. 

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