Zarah Sultana calls for free school meals for all primary school children to avoid ‘bleak, hungry winter’

Almost one in three children in poverty in England are currently ineligible for free school meals, survey data shows

A Labour MP is calling for all primary school children in England free school meals, following warnings that thousands of children from low income households are missing out due to the eligibility criteria.

The Bill, which will be brought to Parliament by Zarah Sultana today (13 December), is backed by a broad coalition of MPs, campaigners, trade unions and other public figures.

Charities have previously warned that the means-testing around free school meals increases stigma, particularly in England, where the eligibility criteria is lower than the rest of the UK.

‘Every child should have a hot, healthy meal’

In England, children receive universal free school meals up to Year 2. This stops in Year 3 when eligibility is restricted to children from households on Universal Credit with a total income of £7,400 or less. In Wales, the Labour government has committed to free school meals for every child by 2024, while in Scotland, the SNP extended free school meals in 2020.

Being eligible for free school meals allows children to buy food and drink at school to the value of £2.30 each day and also opens up free access to the Holiday Activities and Food programme, which provides food, activities and childcare for eligible children eligible during the school holidays.

Sultana’s Bill will call for free school meals to be extended to all primary school children. It is co-sponsored by Lib Dem Munira Wilson, Green Caroline Lucas and DWP Select Committee chair Stephen Timms.

Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, has urged the government to support the motion and warned that many children will face “a bleak, hungry winter,” unless urgent action is taken.

She said: “Every child should be able to have a hot, healthy meal each day, but this is being denied to kids up-and-down the country, forcing them to learn on empty stomachs – and things are getting worse as the cost-of-living crisis pushes even more families into poverty. Without urgent action, children face a bleak, hungry winter.”

“My Free School Meals for All Bill would tackle this injustice, guaranteeing every child in England – no matter their background – gets a decent meal each day.

“From MPs and city mayors, to religious leaders and trade union general secretaries, our campaign is determined to make this a reality, combating child poverty, inequality and educational disadvantage all at once. If it can be done in Scotland and Wales, we can do it in England too.”

Almost one in three poor kids ineligible for free school meals

Around 1.9 million children are currently eligible for free school meals in England, an increase of around 160,000 from 2021, according to Department for Education data.

The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that almost one in three (31%) children in poverty in England are not eligible for Free School Meals, higher than Northern Ireland (22%) and in Scotland (16%) and Wales (19%) once the universal free school meals policies already committed to have been fully rolled out.

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: "Hunger is an urgent issue in our society, and it is beyond argument that access to Free School Meals and good nutrition makes a significant difference to learning. That is why the NEU’s No Child Left Behind campaign is proud to support Zarah Sultana MP’s Bill calling for the extension of Free School Meal provision to every primary school child in England.

“The Government has been gripped by inaction for far too long, cementing in a registration procedure for parents which is not only complicated but stigmatised. Access for all primary-age pupils would be a great leveller."