On 14 September 2020, Baroness D’Souza is due to ask the Government: “In the light of the extension of free school meals during the school summer holidays, what assessment have they made of a permanent programme of free school meals and activities during all future school holidays”.

This In Focus article explains what free school meals are, who is entitled to them and how the programme has changed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

What are free school meals and who usually gets them?

Children in England can receive a free meal at school if they or their parents or guardians receive certain benefits. Maintained schools, academies and free schools have a duty to provide free school meals to pupils of all ages that meet the criteria. In addition, all children in government-funded schools in reception, year 1 and year 2 are entitled to free school meals under the universal infant free school meals programme. Approximately 1.4 million children in England receive free school meals on the basis of benefits. A further 1.4 million do so under the universal infant free school meals programme.

School meals in all maintained schools and some academies must meet a defined healthy eating standard. The meal must provide high-quality meat, poultry or oily fish; fruit and vegetables; as well as bread, other cereals or potatoes. It cannot include drinks with added sugar, crisps, chocolate or sweets, or more than two portions of deep-fried, battered or breaded food per week.

What happened to free school meals during lockdown?

On 23 March 2020, schools closed to all children except those of essential workers, looked after children, those with a social worker and those with complex needs. Some children returned to school in June and July, before breaking up for the summer holidays.

As well as continuing to provide meals for those children attending school during the lockdown, schools were also required to make equivalent provision for eligible children not attending school. This could be through providing meals for collection or delivery, or through supermarket vouchers. The requirement only extended to children receiving benefits-related free school meals, not to those receiving them through the universal infant free school meals programme.

What about school holidays?

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, free school meals were normally only provided during term time, although some holiday programmes in 2018 and 2019 delivered activities and meals for some disadvantaged children during the school holidays.

Initially, the Covid-19 meals and vouchers were to be provided in term time only, in line with the existing free school meals policy. However, some argued that the coronavirus restrictions were likely to exacerbate existing food poverty and therefore free school meals should be extended into the school holidays.

At the beginning of April 2020, the Government announced that it would continue to fund free school meals for eligible children over the Easter holidays.

The Government initially said it was not intending to fund free school meals over the half term holiday, which in most areas ran from 25 to 29 May 2020, but later announced that it would. On 12 May 2020, Vicky Ford, Parliamentary Undersecretary at the Department for Education, said that the Government had met the costs of the scheme during the Easter holidays because of the “unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty for schools during this time” but that the Government currently had “no plans to extend the scheme into future holiday periods”. On 26 May 2020, Baroness Berridge, Parliamentary Undersecretary at the Department for Education, reiterated that the Easter holidays were exceptional circumstances and said the Government would keep the issue under review. The following day, Nick Gibb, Minister for School Standards, told the House of Commons Education Committee that the Government would meet the costs of the scheme over the half term holiday. The Times Educational Supplement reported frustration from some schools that they had not been given this information earlier.

In response to questions from members in both Houses, the Government said it was not intending to continue the voucher scheme over the summer holidays and drew attention to other support available for families. However, a high profile campaign by the footballer Marcus Rashford to continue free meals provision over the summer holidays increased attention on the question. During a debate in the House of Commons on the issue on 16 June 2020, the Education Secretary announced that the Government would continue to fund the voucher scheme over the summer holidays, launching the Covid Summer Food Fund for children who usually receive benefits-related free school meals.

How much does the free school meals scheme cost?

The Government provides schools the equivalent of £2.30 per meal provided at school. Some in the education sector have said that this amount does not meet the full cost of providing the meal and that schools are obliged to make up the difference, taking resources from other areas. The Government has said it spends “around £600 million per year” on free school meals.

The supermarket vouchers provided since March 2020 in lieu of meals at school are worth £15 per week, per child. As at 24 June 2020, over £183 million had been redeemed in vouchers.

Recommendation of the independent review ahead of the National Food Strategy

In 2019, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned Henry Dimbleby, founder of Leon restaurants and co-author of the School Food Plan, to undertake an independent review to inform a future National Food Strategy.

In the first part of his report, published in July 2020, Henry Dimbleby recommends that the Government expand eligibility for free school meals to include every child from a household where a parent or guardian is in receipt of universal credit or equivalent benefits. He argues that the current maximum earnings threshold for free school meals is “much too low” and that “many of the families on universal credit who currently do not qualify for free school meals fall well below the Government’s own threshold for poverty”. The report estimates that if this recommendation were implemented, an additional 1.5 million 7–16-year-olds would benefit from free school meals. It is estimated this would cost an additional £670 million per year.

In addition, Henry Dimbleby recommends that the Government extend the holiday activity and food programme to all areas in England, so that summer holiday support is available to all children in receipt of free school meals. He cites evidence that an estimated 3 million children are at risk of hunger in the school holidays, and that there is increased demand at food banks over the summer. He argues that this issue has been exacerbated by the economic consequences of Covid-19. The report estimates an additional 1.1 million children would participate in the holiday programme, costing approximately £200 million a year.

Marcus Rashford has convened a taskforce, composed of businesses and charities in the food sector, to tackle child food poverty. The goal of the taskforce is to ensure that the Government implements three of Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations from the National Food Strategy review: expanding free school meals, making summer holiday clubs available to all eligible children, and increasing the value of the Government’s Healthy Start vouchers for families with young children.

Image by Peter Cade.