increased universal credit and provided £63m to local authorities to help people facing hardship.
The government now says it will give local authorities £170m to provide food in the Christmas holidays, while schools will continue to provide the meals in term time.
The grant will also be spent on helping hard-hit families with their bills.
The government also promised:
- An extra £16m for food banks
- ”Healthy Start” payments to low income pregnant women, or those with children under four, will increase from £3.10 to £4.25 from April 2021
- The Holiday Activities and Food programme will run again in Easter, Summer and Christmas in 2021
Governments in Scotland and Wales have said they will extend their schemes until Easter 2021. The Northern Ireland Executive has not yet made its plans clear.
Which children get free school meals?
Free school meals have been at least partially funded by the government for more than a century, because of concerns about malnourishment and children being too hungry to concentrate during lessons.
- Income support
- Income-based jobseeker’s allowance
- Income-related employment and support allowance
- Universal credit
Eligibility varies slightly between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because the nations set their own rules.
New claims made in England must come from households earning a maximum income of £7,400 a year after tax, not including any benefits. It’s the same in Scotland and Wales, but in Northern Ireland the household income threshold is £14,000.
In England and Scotland, all infant state school pupils (those in Reception and in Years 1 and 2) can get free school meals during term time.
If a child qualifies for school meals, they remain eligible until they finish the phase of school they’re in as of 31 March 2022, whether primary or secondary.
How many children get free school meals?
In England, about 1.4 million children claimed for free school meals in January 2020 – 17.3% of state-educated pupils.
The take-up was greatest in the north-east of England (23.5%), followed by the West Midlands (20.5%) and the north-west of England (20.2%).
Analysis by the Food Foundation estimates a further 900,000 children in England may have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic.
How did the scheme change during coronavirus?
Most children were not at school during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. This prompted concerns that those eligible for free school meals could “fall through the cracks” and go hungry.
In recent years, free school meals have been linked to lowering obesity levels, and boosting academic achievement for poorer pupils.
During term time, the government in England expected schools to support pupils eligible for free school meals through alternative schemes, including:
- Food parcels for collection or delivery
- The government’s centrally-funded national voucher scheme
- Alternative vouchers for a local shop or supermarket
Many families were issued with either an electronic voucher or gift card worth £15 each week per pupil, to spend at supermarkets including Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S.
It also ran throughout the Easter and May half-term holidays.
How did Marcus Rashford get involved?
In June, Mr Rashford first called for the scheme in England to be extended over the summer holidays. As someone who received free school meals as a child, he said “the system isn’t built for families like mine to succeed”.
In response to his initial campaign, the government in England set up a £120m “Covid summer food fund” for children on free school meals, which cost about £20m for every week of the school holiday.
Following the winter funding announcement, the footballer voiced concern for the families who would still miss out on help.
But he said the steps taken “will improve the lives of near 1.7 million children in the UK over the next 12 months, and that can only be celebrated”.