The Mayor of London has unveiled an emergency scheme to extend free school dinners to every primary school pupil in the capital for one year.
Sadiq Khan said the one-off £130m programme, which comes into effect from September, is an effort to help struggling households amid the cost-of-living crisis.
Funded by additional business rates income, it is estimated the move will help around 270,000 primary school pupils and save families in London around £440 per child across the year.
Current free school dinners rule
Currently, households in England receiving Universal Credit must earn below £7,400 a year before benefits and after tax to qualify for free school meals. Pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 do get free meals, though.
In Scotland, all pupils in the first five years of school receive free school dinners, with the intention to extend that to Primary 6 and 7 in the near future. Wales is committed to feeding all primary kids for free by September 2024.
According to the Food Foundation, an estimated 800,000 children in England are living in poverty but do not qualify.
Reasons for free meals in London
Mr Khan said he was “stepping forward” after years of Government inaction.
“The cost of living crisis means families and children across our city are in desperate need of additional support,” he said.
“I have repeatedly urged the Government to provide free school meals to help already stretched families, but they have simply failed to act.
“This is why I’m stepping forward with an emergency £130m scheme that will ensure every single primary pupil in the capital receives free school meals. This will save families hundreds of pounds over the year, ensuring parents aren’t worrying about how they’re going to feed their children.
“It will also guarantee every primary school student a healthy, nutritious meal – meaning they don’t go hungry in the classroom and can better concentrate on their studies.”
‘Lifeline’ of free meals
Mr Khan called free school meals a “lifeline”, adding that he had personally benefitted from them as a child.
He said: “My siblings and I depended on them to eat while at school and my parents relied on them to give our family a little extra breathing room financially.
“The difference they can make to children who are at risk of going hungry – and to families who are struggling to make ends meet – is truly game-changing.
“Supporting London’s families through this cost-of-living crisis and helping ensure our children are properly fed is vital as we continue striving to build a better London for everyone – a city that is fairer, safer and more prosperous for all.”
Could free school dinners roll out across England?
Anna Taylor, chief executive of the Food Foundation, called on the Government to follow Mr Khan’s lead.
She said: “We applaud London’s Mayor for taking timely action to support families fighting the cost of living by ensuring every primary school pupil gets a nutritious lunch, no matter their background.
“This is a monumental step forward for safeguarding children’s diets, well-being and learning across the capital.
“However, outside of London, hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty still don’t qualify for a Free School Meal. Central Government must now honour its levelling up commitment by investing in Free School Meal expansion for every community in the upcoming budget.
“We know this policy has resounding support in every corner of the UK.”
Mr Khan’s intervention comes after TV chef Jamie Oliver in December called on the Government to extend free school dinners to every household with parents on Universal Credit, warning “chaos ensues” from parents worrying about feeding their children.