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The case for expanding Free School Meals in Wales

July 29th 2020

Part 1 of England’s National Food Strategy made the headlines recently

Steffan Evans argues why its recommendation to significantly increase the number of children eligible for Free School Meals should also be made in Wales.

Two children eating school lunch

Coronavirus has exposed the extent of inequality in our society. No where has this inequality been more clearly highlighted than by the fact that people living in Wales’ most deprived communities have been almost twice as likely to die from the virus than people in Wales’ most affluent communities. The connection between poverty and ill health was already well established, however.

27.1% of Welsh children aged four and five are either overweight or obese with children living in poverty being at a higher risk of being obese than children from higher income households. In the short-term, overweight and obese children are at a higher risk of suffering from both physical and mental health illnesses. In the long-term there is a high risk that those who are overweight or obese during childhood will continue to have such issues as adults, which can lead to longer term health issues.

Numerous studies have established that those living in poverty do not eat unhealthy meals through ignorance, but, as a result of them not being able to afford the ingredients to prepare healthy meals. That is why the publication of the National Food Strategy, Part 1, and its calls for the UK Government to provide Free School Meals to all children who receive Universal Credit is so timely.

Children who receive Free School Meals are guaranteed one healthy, nutritious meal a day during term time benefitting both their health and their education. Whilst undertaking our research on the role of the Welsh Benefits System in lifting children out poverty we found that families all over Wales greatly appreciated the support that they receive through Free School Meals. Too many families miss out on this support, however, despite living in poverty.

Why do families miss out on support?

There is more than one reason why families living in poverty miss out on support. Stigma remains a significant barrier. Nearly a quarter of children who were eligible for Free School Meals at the last school census day did not take up their entitlement. This problem is compounded by complicated and burdensome application processes in some local authorities which deters parents from applying.

The greatest barrier to families living in poverty receiving Free School Meals, however, is unfair eligibility criteria. A child who lives in a family who receives Universal Credit but who earn more than £7,400 a year through paid work is not eligible for Free School Meals. This locks out thousands of children from families living in, in-work poverty from receiving support. Calculations over the summer of 2018 estimated that approximately 55,000 children living in poverty were ineligible for support for this reason. The situation is likely to worsen as the economic impact of the pandemic hits.

What can be done in Wales?

There are a range of actions available to the Welsh Government to address the shortcomings in its current approach to Free School Meals.

In the first instance we believe that the Welsh Government should seek to establish a single application process for support provided through the Welsh Benefits System. Some local authorities have already developed innovative approaches that mean that families who receive the Council Tax Reduction Scheme, for example, don’t have to make an additional application for Free School Meals. This makes life easier for families and removes a barrier for take up of support.

Alongside this however there is a clear need to review the current eligibility criteria for Free School Meals. The Bevan Foundation, alongside many other organisations have consistently called on the Welsh Government to amend the eligibility criteria for Free School Meals so that any child whose family receives Universal Credit receives Free School Meals, regardless of their earned income. It is therefore to be welcomed that the National Food Strategy makes similar calls.

The Welsh Government have previously argued that it does not have the resources to fund a programme on such a scale. Clearly if the UK Government took up the recommendations of the National Food Strategy and rolled out the policy in England this would free up significant resources for the Welsh Government through the Barnett Formula to adopt a similar policy in Wales. Even if the UK Government stops short of implementing the recommendations of the Strategy, however, we believe that the advantages of rolling out Free School Meals to all children who receive Universal Credit are such that the Welsh Government should find the money within its own resources to do so.

Indeed, we believe that there is a case to go further. As a longer-term objective, the Welsh Government should explore the possibility of rolling-out Free School Meals to all school pupils. This would ensure that no child living in poverty would miss out on school meals while also reducing the stigma, benefiting thousands of children across the country.

You can read more about our ideas on how the Welsh Benefits System can raise children out of poverty here.

Steffan Evans is a Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation 

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