20,000 Lancashire children in poverty are missing out on free school meals

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All children up to Year 3 qualify for school meals, then it's means-tested.

An estimated 20,000 school-age children in poverty in Lancashire are missing out on school meals, a new study shows.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA), authors of the new analysis, said the qualifying criteria is too restrictive and doesn't take into account recent inflation price hikes. They are now urging local leaders to do what they can to ensure more kids get a free lunch but say the responsibility ultimately lies with the UK government to expand provision of free school meals across the country to tackle classroom hunger. 

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What's the situation?

Infants are guaranteed a free school meal in England, but children in Year 3 and above must be in households on universal credit with an income below £7,400 per year (before benefits and after tax) to qualify. This threshold has not changed since 2018, despite increasing inflation.  It means 100,000 - or one in four - school-age children in poverty across the North West can’t claim free meals – at a time when one in three children in the region are below the poverty line.

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The study claims that a total of 100,000 North West children in poverty are affected, that includes 15,000 children in the Lancashire County Council local authority area, 2,000 in Blackpool and 3,000 in Blackburn with Darwen.

"Too hungry to concentrate"

Child Poverty Action Group’s head of education policy Kate Anstey said: "Seeing the statistics at local level brings this issue home. Children in every corner of the North West are sitting in classrooms too hungry to concentrate and learn because they don’t qualify for a free school meal.

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"Too many children are being let down by the Government’s cruel free school meals cut-off threshold – and these numbers should act as a wake-up call. The Government must bring in universal free school meals to ensure every child has the food they need and struggling families get breathing space from high costs. Means-testing children at lunchtime should be a thing of the past."

How does England compare?

The campaign groups say Government action on free schoolmeals lags behind other UKnations. In Scotland and Wales, universal provision is being rolled out across primary schools, and in Northern Ireland, the eligibility criteria is set at £14,000 - much higher than in England.

What is poverty and how many people are affected?

Households are considered to be below the UK poverty line if their income is under 60 per cent of the median household income after housing costs for that year. For a working age couple, that figure is £259.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, more than 1 in 5 people in the UK (22 per cent) were in poverty in 2021/22 – 14.4 million people. This included 8.1 million (or around 2 in 10) working-age adults, 4.2 million (or nearly 3 in 10) children and 2.1 million (or around 1 in 6) pensioners. 

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