As the school bell rings, dozens of children begin filing into the canteen at Hillstone Primary School. The day's offering, a roast dinner, is a popular one, and many are eager to tuck into their plates of turkey slices, roasted potatoes, broccoli and gravy.
For some children in this area of suburban Birmingham, central England, where many families are low income, it may be the only nutritious hot meal in a day.
Some students eating sandwiches from their lunchboxes instead say they get one hot lunch a week, but they would like more. “My mum says it costs a bit more,” one girl said last week.
Free school lunches are provided for all 4- to 7-year-olds in England, but most parents of older children have to pay about 2.20 pounds ($2.70) a day for their child to have a cooked meal. That may sound like a small amount, but charities and teachers say it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable for hundreds of thousands of families struggling to cope with the United Kingdom's worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation.
Whether Britain’s government should spend to feed more schoolchildren is a hot-button issue as more families fall into poverty and cannot afford basics after paying their skyrocketing energy and food bills. The government said it will keep reviewing meal eligibility and pointed to other relief given to needy families.
Inflation in the U.K. has hit a 41-year high of 11.1%, driven in large part by gas and electricity costs, which have almost doubled from last winter amid Russia's war in Ukraine. Prices for staples like milk, butter and pasta also have shot up by some 30%.
To qualify for free school lunches, England's households have to receive government benefits and earn less than 7,400 pounds ($9,021) a year. That's below the threshold in parts of the U.S., Europe and even elsewhere in the U.K.
The Food Foundation, a charity leading a campaign to extend the free school lunch program, argues the income level is too low. It estimates that 800,000 children in England are living in poverty but not eligible for free meals.
“It’s those children who we are really worried right now during the cost-of-living crisis, because those families are having to make really tough choices about where to spend their money,” said Anna Taylor, the charity’s executive director.
To save cash, many parents don’t pay for a school meal and pack their kids a lunch, which often isn't as nutritious, Taylor said.
“We’ve been hearing from teachers that children are going to school with empty lunchboxes or with stuff that they’re very ashamed to show to their friends,” she added.
During the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Food Foundation and soccer star Marcus Rashford persuaded Britain’s government to provide free meals to children in poverty over the school holidays. Rashford, who spoke of his mother struggling to put food on the table, helped sway the government to change its policies that allowed 1.3 million children to claim free meals.
Taylor said many Britons are now even worse off because some never recovered from pandemic job losses before being hit with massively higher bills. Monthly surveys conducted by her charity suggested that the number of families saying they have had to skip or have smaller meals because they couldn’t afford food has doubled over the course of January to October.
“It’s unprecedented levels of food insecurity right now,” she said.
The Department of Education said the government understands the “pressures” many households face and that it is already giving cost-of-living subsidies to millions of the poorest families, supporting “more children and young people than ever before.” It added that officials will “keep all free school meal eligibility under review.”
At Hillstone Primary, 51% of children qualify for free lunches, and headteacher Jason King says many of the others also need financial help. Some parents even approached the school for food.
“When I started here 27 years ago, there were no food banks in the area. It wasn’t heard of,” King said. The school recently put together food parcels for a parent who said he had no money left for food. “They’ve got no food at home. They come to us — we’re not going to turn them away.”
Louise Glew, a parent who volunteers at the school, said she was getting by but knew plenty of others struggling. She said she didn’t understand why the government couldn’t find the money to extend free school meals to all elementary students.
“Parents are prideful, they don’t want to go, ‘I need help.' But if the dinner was free for all (schoolchildren) they wouldn’t need to,” Glew said. “They would get a warm meal every day, and the parent wouldn’t have to panic, thinking, ‘Oh, have they had something warm? Have they eaten enough?'”
The government said over one-third of students in England receive free school meals, including all 4- to 7-year-olds and about 1.9 million older children who qualify based on family income.
England lags other parts of the U.K. The Welsh government, for example, says it will provide free school lunches for all elementary school students by 2024.
Some European countries, like Sweden and Finland, provide free lunches almost entirely through school life. Others, like France and Germany, have varied policies including subsidies that depend on parents’ income.
In the U.S., the states decide. A federal law made meals free for all schoolchildren during the pandemic, but those benefits expired before this school year. The experience has sparked local efforts to make universal free school lunch permanent, with California and Maine passing bills last year.
In the U.K., Taylor acknowledged that the government has little spare cash for public spending but argued that the cost — an estimated 477 million pounds a year — is a long-term investment needed now more than ever.
“This is not a sort of a ‘nice to have,'" she said. “Children will wear the effects of these decisions in their bodies and in their achievements in life.”