Thousands of disadvantaged children in the South East will from this month be entitled to a free school meal for the first time, according to research by The Children’s Society.
An analysis of official statistics shows that about 248,000 children across the region, aged from four to seven, will benefit from the Government’s expansion of free school meals to all infants from the start of the school year.
Of these, some 21,700 are currently living in poverty and are likely to see the greatest benefit from the changes.
Under the new policy, which was first announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg last September, a free school meal is being offered to all school children in reception, year one and year two.
Nationally, the landmark move will make free school meals available to about 1.5 million more children than before – including 160,000 more children living in poverty.
These children will be able to rely on at least one nutritious meal every school day – and will help hard-pressed families across the country in the face of rising costs and food prices.
However, while this move is a significant step forward, around half a million children who are living in poverty will continue to miss out on a free school meal.
Many low-income families are unable to get free school meals simply because their parents are working – no matter how little they earn.
The Children’s Society, through its Fair and Square campaign, campaigned hard for free school meals to be made available to every school child in poverty and this still needs to be made a reality.
For some children, a free school lunch may be the only proper meal they get. Nearly half of teachers we surveyed said they often saw children going hungry in school.
For parents in poverty, finding the £370 a year needed for each child’s school meal often means struggling to provide their children with the basics, including buying them shoes for school and heating their home.
Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: “The extension of free school meals to all infants in the South East is a positive step forward in the fight against child poverty, and shows that the Government recognises the hardship that thousands of families are facing. But for poor youngsters older than seven, nothing has changed. That’s why it is vital that ministers build on this to make sure that every child in poverty is guaranteed a free school meal, whatever their age.”