Schools dipping into own budgets to feed pupils

Schools across England are regularly paying to feed hungry pupils, according to polling of 10,000 teachers commissioned by the charity School Food Matters. 

The findings come amid growing calls for the government to expand access to free school meals. 

The polling by Teacher Tapp asked teachers about the extent of pupil hunger at their schools and the impact it is having on children and their learning. 

It found that four in 10 teachers surveyed said pupils in their class were regularly too hungry to learn, with the figure jumping to 63% in the most deprived areas. 

More than a fifth of teachers said this issue has got worse since the start of the academic year in September 2023.  

The government has so far resisted calls from a coalition of school food campaigners, children’s charities, headteachers, public health experts and unions to expand the eligibility criteria for free school meals. 

To be eligible, a child’s family must be in receipt of universal credit and have a total household income of less than £7,400 in a year, resulting in an estimated one million children (one in three) living in poverty in England missing out on free school meals. 

Schools across the country have been left to pick up the pieces, according to figures released today from the School Food Matters survey.  

Four in 10 senior leaders said their school has been providing free school meals to pupils who are not eligible, with that number rising to half in the poorest areas. 

More than half (58 per cent) of senior leaders said demand for this support has increased since September. A quarter said their school has written off school meals debt this year, and 24 per cent said they had opened a food bank to support struggling families. 

Stephanie Slater, founder and chief executive at School Food Matters, said: “The news that cash-strapped schools across England are dipping into their budgets to feed hungry children is shocking. Schools cannot continue to plug gaps in provision with these drastic measures. The government must expand free school meals so that every child has the good nutrition they need to thrive.” 

The teacher poll further revealed that the issue of child hunger at school varies significantly across the country, with schools in the North West and South West in particular forced to dip into their school budgets to feed pupils ineligible for free school meals. 

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