Nearly one in ten kids live in poverty but cannot access free school meals, report says

Date published: 08 February 2024

Nearly one in ten children in Greater Manchester are living in poverty and cannot access free school meals, a shocking new report has revealed.

The report from Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) with GM Poverty Action has found 46,000 children are living in relative poverty but cannot access free school meals because the government’s criteria is ‘too restrictive’, the organisation claims. There are around 585,000 under-15s living in the city-region, meaning eight percent of all children fall into this category.

Currently, government rules dictate that free school meals can only be given to schoolchildren whose parents receive one or more of a range of benefits, including universal credit. However, to qualify for free school meals via universal credit the family must earn less than £7,400 net annually — a threshold which hasn’t changed since 2018, despite soaring inflation levels and increases in the national minimum wage.

And it is that cut-off that campaigners have branded ‘cruel’. Kate Anstey, from report co-authors the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) with GM Poverty Action, said: “Too many children are being let down by the Government’s cruel free school meals cut-off threshold – and these numbers should act as a wake-up call.”

She has also called on ministers to ‘bring in universal free school meals to ensure every child has the food they need and struggling families get breathing space from high costs’.

“Means-testing children at lunchtime should be a thing of the past,” she added.

That is a call which the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has publicly backed. In a statement to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, he said: “We support GM Poverty Action’s call for a review of national free school meal policy, and believe a targeted approach would deliver the best outcomes for young people in our city-region. Pupils will never thrive inside and outside the classroom, if they are learning on an empty stomach.

“Three years ago, we established a Food Security Action Network, to tackle food poverty and end holiday hunger in Greater Manchester. No-one in Britain should go hungry, and no child should be refused a hot, healthy meal, should they need one.”

Broken down borough-by-borough, Manchester has by far the highest number of children in poverty that don’t get free school meals, at 10,500, the data suggests. Next highest is Bolton with 5,500, then Oldham with 5,000.

Rochdale has 4,000 children in such a position, along with Wigan and Salford. Tameside and Trafford have 3,500 each, and the smallest numbers were seen in Stockport and Bury, at 3,000 each.

The city-region has been a hub of campaigning on free school meals, with Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford, who was raised in Withington and Wythenshawe, leading the calls to provide meal vouchers over school holidays last year, and eventually forced a government U-turn.

A spokesperson for Rochdale Borough Council said: “The number of children living in poverty in Rochdale borough is constantly changing and linked to the pressures of increased cost of living and changing family circumstances.”

“We are aware that there are vulnerable children and families living in poverty who do not meet the national criteria for free school meals and we have been supporting them in a number of ways. This includes working with families who are not eligible for free school meals to help them access free membership to food clubs, providing free food bags for six weeks and then at significantly reduced cost every week after then. Families can also access food banks in the borough and a number of other schemes, for example, school uniform support and seasonal gifts.”

“In response to the issue of free school meal eligibility impacting children across the borough, we have also extended the criteria for our Holiday Activities Fund Programme which provides activities and a meal for children during the holiday period. Our school holiday food voucher scheme also includes not just children eligible for free school meals but also those who we know may need support, because a family has approached us or a member of staff or professional working with the family has identified that they would benefit.”

“Additionally, we have a cost of living tool kit providing staff working in partners organisations access to advice and support for families living in poverty who may not be eligible for free school meals. They also signpost families to useful information and other support organisations.  Our Early Help Assessments also identify those families in need of support with debt and or poverty. The council has a poverty group looking at how we can continue to support our most vulnerable children and families living in the borough of Rochdale.”

For its part the Department for Education said that this government has extended eligibilty for free school meals since 2010. A statement added: “We understand the pressures many households are under, which is why we have extended eligibility for free school meals to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century – doubling the number of children receiving free school meals since 2010 from one sixth to one third.

“We have also put protections in place to ensure that children who are eligible for free school meal retain that entitlement even if their household circumstances change.”

Ethan Davies, Local Democracy Reporter

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