Free school meals rise

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27 August 2021

By Aoifke Madeleine

Statistics show that one in five children are now eligible for free school meals in the UK, impacted by the pandemic. 

Since 2010, food poverty has increased drastically. Brutal Tory cuts have contributed to the rise, evidencing systemic disadvantage for poorer and vulnerable families. Now, over 1.74 million children are in need.

During the pandemic, figures have risen by 300,000 since January 2020 for those needing help. However, the problem was already prevalent. Under Conservative governments, there has always been setbacks and cuts made to the provision of free school meals. 


Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is well-known for ending the receipt of free milk for school pupils in 1980, despite 1944 legislation requiring all local authorities to provide free nutritious school meals to children.

A new Education Act was introduced just after Thatcher’s policy, halting the minimum nutritional requirement for free school meals. Furthermore, under Thatcher, the Competitive Tendering Act was introduced, meaning private companies could bid to provide meals for schools.

The privatisation of the free school meals system created what is known as the ‘nutrition transition‘. This resulted in meals that were cheap and lacking in nutrition, due to lack of regulation and the standard of government legislation.

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Further laws such as the 1986 Social Security Act reduced eligibility for free school meals too. This came at a time of growing unemployment, following Conservative cuts for manual industries.

Reports from the 1990s found that children were malnourished due to the poor food standards from these private companies.

It’s a struggle that few experience or understand. Whilst many blame individuals, it’s the government’s responsibility to feed children – not independent charities or foundations.

Food poverty creates education losses as a well-balanced diet is necessary for concentration and energy when learning. It’s also a basic human right.


It’s important to recognise regional differences. The North East has the highest rates with 27.5% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, followed by 24.5% in the West Midlands. This is compared to just 16% in the South East.

One in eight York pupils claim free school meals.

When looking at food poverty, the government’s blatant disregard for the Northern parts of the country becomes even more obvious, as lack of employment in these areas reproduces inequalities.

Oxfam identifies the issues causing the need for free school meals as being “economic stagnation, the rising cost of living, cuts to social security and public services, falling incomes, and rising unemployment”.

The Trussell Trust, a charity dedicated to ending food poverty, stated that “the exponential rise in poverty and homelessness we see has only happened in the last decade, and reverses the trend of the decade before it”.

Trussell Trust identifies the top three reasons for referral to food banks as low income, benefit delay, benefit change. With the built-in five-week (minimum) waiting period for Universal Credit, many are left with no safety net.


Britain is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the government’s disregard, vilifying of benefit claimers, and production of job insecurity, has created these problems. It took ten years for the number to rise so high. How bad will things get in the next ten?

This decade-long legacy has led to many taking a stand. It took a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford to ensure that free school meals would be delivered to homes over half-term holidays. 

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FE News reported that the Conservatives’ Holiday Activities and Food Programme decision to only provide free school meals for half of the summer holiday could mean that 24 million meals are not provided.

The Conservative government’s decisions regarding feeding children show what is already clear to many: they are the party for the elite to reproduce class hierarchy, not those in need of help.

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