Southwark calls on the Chancellor to use his Autumn Statement to take action and expand Free School Meals

14 November 2022

As families continue to suffer the effects of the cost of living crisis, Southwark is calling on the Chancellor to use his Autumn Statement to make free school meals (FSM) available to all primary school aged children across the country, and to increase the income threshold for eligibility of free school meals for secondary aged pupils from £7,400 to £20,000. This would support families with secondary school age children, in order to target the most vulnerable pupils who sit above the current eligibility threshold but are nevertheless struggling to make ends meet and feed their families.

Councillor Jasmine Ali, Deputy Leader and Cabinet member for children, young people and schools, said: “No child should go hungry, they have a right to food, and we have to act now to support those most affected by the cost of living crisis – particularly families with children, of all ages. We need to see hot, nutritious meals provided to children of all ages at school so they are at least fed once a day, and I am calling on the Government to fund people, councils and schools to provide it.”

Research shows that the group most vulnerable to food poverty is families who are on very low incomes, but who do not qualify for FSM. Child Poverty Action Group analysis from June 2022 found that 800,000 children in poverty (one in three school age children) miss out on any form of free school meals because their annual household earnings (excluding benefits) exceed £7,400. This low threshold – of just £617 a month after tax – is applied by the government irrespective of the number of children in the family, and mostly impacts low-income working families. This is higher in London than any region nationally with 41 per cent children in poverty missing out on FSM. The recent Growing Hungry Report also demonstrates that food bank usage in London has increased by a startling 2,290 per cent since 2011/12, with 66 per cent of single parents having to have cut back on food for themselves as a result of making debt repayments.

A family whose income is just above this would, after bills and rent, have no money left to feed their children. For those who pay the school, school meals cost around £80 a month, and that is with the economy of scale schools get with food orders. Our younger residents are disproportionately affected by food poverty; 43 per cent of those aged under 16 are living in poverty and unable to afford healthy meals - significantly higher than the average for England. Spiralling housing costs also mean that residents are simply unable to afford food. Our residents in rented accommodation spend on average 52 per cent of their median monthly income on housing costs, in stark comparison to the national average of 24 per cent.

Providing school lunches pays. A recent Impact on Urban Health report, published on Tuesday 11th October, demonstrates that expanding free school meal eligibility to all primary school students would generate £41.3bn in direct benefits to pupils and a further £58.2bn in indirect benefits to the wider economy, over a period of 20 years. The Superpowers of Free School Meals report, published last week, by the Feed the Future Campaign, corroborates this finding, and also shows that primary school children in receipt of free school meals are healthier, happier, do better in school, and earn more over their lifetimes.

Southwark Council was one of the first councils to invest in free, healthy school meals for all primary school children, guaranteeing children a hot, nutritious meal at lunchtime. Free school lunches support families with the rising cost of living, help pupils engage in learning, enhance academic performance, and improve nutrition – shoring up the diets of children from low-income households. Providing schools lunches helps foster healthy eating and supports a healthy weight.

The independently commissioned National Food Strategy, published in 2021 recommended that the Government increase the threshold for free school meals up to £20,000, agreeing that this is the minimum income required for people to afford to feed a family. The Government has chosen not to include this in its own Government Food Strategy despite the recommendation from industry experts.

Deputy Leader of Southwark Council, Jasmine Ali, has already written to the Secretary of State for Education to take urgent action to avert a ‘calamitous hunger crisis’, by implementing Southwark’s asks of universal free school meals to be implemented nationally for all primary children, and for an increase in the income threshold for all secondary school pupils. Southwark now calls on the Chancellor to prioritise the health and well-being of our young people and deliver these asks in his Autumn Statement.

Southwark Council is actively campaigning, lobbying and raising awareness on the subject of childhood food poverty through a range of channels and in direct communication with the Government. This is part of a wider drive and support package to tackle the Cost of Living crisis affecting its residents. Southwark’s Cabinet member for Health and Wellbeing, Councillor Evelyn Akoto, has written to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, asking the Government to commit to providing residents a statutory right to safe, nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate food during this cost of living crisis.  

Page last updated: 14 November 2022