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More than 200,000 children miss out on free school meals

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An estimated 215,000 children are missing out on free school meals worth £500 each due to the manual application process, councils warn.

Free school meals are provided for children (year three onwards) in England where a parent (or child) is in receipt of certain means-tested benefits.

To get free school meals worth approximately £470 per child, you need to apply via your local authority.

However, according to the Local Government Association which represents councils, an estimated 215,000 children could be missing out due to the lack of an automated sign-up system.

The LGA said free school meals could be extended to many more children in need if the application process was simplified and made automatic.

It would also ease the financial pressure for many families who could spend money on other essentials amid the current record food price inflation.

Further, it also revealed that an estimated 800,000 children living in poverty are not entitled to free school meals because their household’s income is just above the £7,400 annual threshold which has stayed at that level since its introduction in 2018.

The LGA said the sign-up process should be streamlined to capture those who already meet the criteria to ensure no child goes without at least one hot nutritious meal a day.

Tackling food poverty

It said automatic enrolment, instead of parents having to formally apply to their local authority or via their child’s academy school could benefit an estimated 11% of eligible school children – the equivalent to 215,000 pupils – who haven’t taken up the offer yet.

This in turn would generate tens of millions of pounds in vital extra pupil premium funding for schools, which is allocated based on the number of agreed FSM applications per school.

“This would also help ensure funding gets to where it is needed, in order to narrow the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers”, the LGA said.

It added that as well as tackling food poverty, FSMs have also been linked to better results in class and improved diet, “leading to a reduction in diet-related health inequalities such as obesity”.

Meanwhile, research also suggested that if eligibility was increased, for every £1 invested there could be a return of £1.38. This consists of saving on food costs for families, increased lifetime earnings due to improved educational attainment, and other savings to schools and the NHS due to reduced obesity rates.

As such, the LGA is calling on the Government to urgently introduce automatic enrolment and consider extending eligibility for FSMs, as well as reviewing the current income threshold of £7,400 per year.

‘Lifeline for families’

Cllr Pete Marland, chairman of the LGA’s resources board, said: “Free school meals are a vital lifeline for families who are struggling to make ends meet, just as food prices continue to rise.

“Food inflation is at its highest for almost half a century and this is hitting the poorest households hardest. The near-£500 annual saving for a family for each child on free school meals can make all the difference, now more so than ever before.

“Encouraging those who are eligible to sign up and automating the process will help relieve this financial burden, freeing up family budgets and improving the next generation’s health, education and prospects.

“The Government should see this as an investment in our children’s future, to help them and their families get through this cost-of-living crisis and come out of it stronger, healthier and more secure.”

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