Covid-19 has both exposed the extent of poverty in Wales and deepened it. Even before the pandemic, 700,000 people, more than one in five people already lived in poverty. With a quarter of Welsh households seeing their incomes fall since March, and with living costs rising, many of our poorest families are struggling to keep their heads above water. It is in this context that the argument for expanding eligibility for Free School Meals becomes overwhelming.
The case for Free School Meals
The benefits of Free School Meals are well documented. 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. Providing a healthy, nutritious meal in schools helps counter this, benefiting children’s health and education. Why then, do over half of children living in poverty in Wales miss out on Free School Meals?
Unfair eligibility criteria
Families on Universal Credit are only eligible for free school meals if their family income is below £7,400 (before benefits are taken into account). This locks out 70,000 children who are trapped in poverty from Free School Meals. A further 6,000 children are not normally eligible for Free School Meals as a result of their families not having recourse to public funds.
Not only does this situation lead to tens of thousands of Welsh children missing out on a hot meal, it also means that Wales has the least generous Free School Meal provision of any nation in the UK. In Northern Ireland, the income cap for families in receipt of Universal Credit is almost two times higher at £14,000, whilst in Scotland and England, all infants are provided with a Free School Meal on a universal basis.
The system fails in other ways
It is not just the unfair eligibility criteria that locks out families from the support they need. 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 Children’s Commissioner has also previously raised concerns about the value of support that is provided to children in receipt of Free School Meals, with children being left short, not having enough funds through their Free School entitlement to cover a full lunch. Other research has found that many children are arriving in school hungry but are faced with a choice of breakfast or lunch.
What can be done
There are a range of actions available to the Welsh Government to address the shortcomings in its current approach to 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. This should be done immediately. If the UK Government has decided that a child’s family needs financial support, why then, have we in Wales determined that such families are not poor enough to receive Free School Meals?
As a longer term objective, however, we believe the Welsh Government should begin the process of making Free School Meals universally available for all. We appreciate that there may be capacity issues in schools that prevent the Welsh Government from immediately rolling out the policy. As a starting point, we therefore believe that the Welsh Government should provide Free School Meals universally to all infants to bring Wales into line with England and Scotland, with the view of expanding provision further.
In addition to this the Welsh Government should amend eligibility criteria so that all children who have no recourse to public funds are eligible for Free School Meals. It should also build on the success of its programme of providing support to families over the school holidays, making such support permanent.
Providing Free School Meals universally to all children will not as of itself solve poverty, but it will ensure that no child goes hungry through no fault of their own and will improve the lives of thousands of families across Wales.
Steffan Evans works for Bevan Foundation as a policy and research officer.