Children's Commissioner: 'Decision not to extend free school meals shows a lack of compassion'

Anne Longfield
Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Before the coronavirus crisis, I met two children whose families were relying on foodbanks to help them get by.

They came to my house as part of a CBBC Newsround film, and they told me that they didn’t know what would be in the cupboard during the school holidays when they weren’t receiving their school meal. It was heart-breaking to hear, yet sadly not a unique experience. ‘Holiday hunger’ was already a problem affecting thousands of children, and it is likely to become even more prevalent as the economic impact of Covid-19 becomes clearer.

Indeed, every day we are finding out more about how living standards have fallen during lockdown. Just last week, the IPPR estimated that the crisis has pushed 300,000 children into poverty since the start of the pandemic, and a real-time survey in April showed 88,000 children were in families where jobs had been lost, 1.2 million were in families where someone was furloughed and two million were in families where hours were reduced.

This harsh reality, coupled with the prospect of more economic pain to come, means that action has to be taken now to protect the welfare of children. That is why I have urged the government to continue to provide free school meals for eligible children during the summer holidays.

I praised the government when it made free school meals available over Easter and then during term time, even though most children who are eligible for them are not at school. This was the right thing to do, and it has provided much needed support to some of the most vulnerable children. Given the precarious economic circumstances, there is no reason for that support to be withdrawn for six weeks over the summer.

Even before Covid-19, there were nearly two million children in families in England classed as ‘food insecure’. The summer holidays are a particularly difficult period for these families, but Covid-19 has exacerbated a range of issue they are facing, not just financial but in terms of the networks of support they can access either formally or informally.

As I said in a letter to the Chancellor earlier this week, a free school meal is the last line of defence against poverty and hunger for children. When everything else fails, when there are problems accessing universal credit, or families are verging on the edge of crisis, a school meal is the most basic level of subsistence we provide to our children.

The decision not to continue free school meals for those who usually receive them over the summer holidays shows a lack of compassion, particularly at a time when the overall package of support already announced by the government is a mind-boggling £132bn.

It reflects very poorly on the importance the government places on children that within that spending the Treasury cannot find a few million pounds to keep children fed. According to the IFS, each meal costs around £2.30. There were 1,270,941 children eligible and claiming free school meals in Spring 2019, so the approximate cost to extend the scheme for six weeks over summer would be £87.7m. This is not a small amount of money until you put it within the context of the rest of the support on offer.

We know financial pressures are one of many issues families are facing at the moment. Poor finances are often the trigger for families to move from coping to crisis. The decision not to provide free school meals over the summer could end up putting even more pressure on children’s social care, which is already stretched to its limit.

We don’t need to rehearse the argument that poverty is one of the main drivers for children ending up in care, or that children growing up in poverty are less likely to do as well at school or later in adulthood. All these points are well-established, even within government.

A government that was really committed to families, to fairness and to intelligent, preventative spending would rethink its decision. I hope the Chancellor will change his mind.

Anne Longfield is the children’s commissioner for England

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