Demand for free school meals rises as Covid food poverty hits

New data from the Food Foundation, released as part of the joint #EndChildFoodPoverty campaign with Marcus Rashford, reveals an extremely high demand for Free School Meals this Autumn. The data, acquired through a sample survey conducted by Childwise, shows that 29% (equivalent to 2.2 million children) of children aged 8-17 are registered for Free School Meals, with an astounding 42% of these children (900,000) newly registered to the scheme.


64% of the newly registered children are from households where the main earners report being in higher income occupations compared to 36% from lower income occupations. This massive increase in demand shows the hard-hitting socio-economic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis, with survey data gathered in August revealing that 32% of households with children have experienced a drop in income since late March.


This demonstrates how far reaching the impact of the crisis has been for families, with redundancies, loss of income and furlough affecting millions of parents


A further 21% of children (over 1 million) aged 8-17, as well as 14% of parents with children not currently on the scheme, said they would like to receive Free School Meals (2). 8% of children (over 600,000) said they were worried about not having enough food for lunch at school this term.


Despite this major spike in demand, schools are struggling to provide hot lunches, with only 32% of all children aged 8-17 saying they were eating hot meals from the canteen, and shockingly 3% of children (180,000) saying they skipped lunch entirely. A hot school lunch provides vital sustenance for disadvantaged children, with many relying on it as their main meal in the day.

From The Food Foundation

Low uptake of school meals by children who pay is likely to also be hampering canteens getting back to normal with hot meal provision.  Overall, 50% of children reported taking packed lunches. Less than half (45%) of children reported that their canteens were running as usual with social distancing. 8% of children reported their canteens were closed. 10% of children said most children have been asked to bring a packed lunch.  21% said canteens were only serving a small number of pupils.   Research from the University of Leeds has shown that less than 2% of packed lunches meet nutritional standards .


The new data paints a similar picture for parents of pre-school children, with huge unmet demand for additional support. 42% of parents with children aged 0-3 years old and/or pregnant women weren’t aware of the Government’s Healthy Start scheme which provides vouchers for fruit, vegetables and milk. Yet demand is undoubtedly there, with 65% of households with pregnant women and/or children aged 0-3 years old who don’t currently receive Healthy Start vouchers saying it would make it easier for them to buy more milk, fruit and vegetables for their family. 32% of those say they have a limited budget for food and struggle to afford the fruit, veg and milk they need.


This new data adds to an already bleak forecast with worst-case projections from the Office for Budgetary Responsibility suggesting a rise in unemployment to 13.2%  by the first quarter of 2021. This would result in up to 336,500 more working adults being food insecure due to loss of employment and end of furlough in the coming six months.  Add to this, uncertainty around post-Brexit food prices, it is clear that Government must act to prevent a food access crisis.


  • The Food Foundation is part of footballer Marcus Rashford’s Child Food Poverty Task Force, and along with 20 charities and key names in the food industry is calling on Government to allocate sufficient budget to the three National Food Strategy recommendations, as part of an urgent recovery package for vulnerable families and their children this Autumn.


Marcus Rashford says: “4.2 million children were living in poverty in the UK prior to Covid-19 and this is expected to have risen; the Task Force stand together to offer these vulnerable children the platform they need to have their voices heard. The time for action is now. I’m proud and I’m humbled to see such a reaction and commitment from the food industry, and I am confident that together we can help change the lives of those most vulnerable for the better.”

Photo credit: Fare Share

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