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The Free School Meal Crisis

By Kimberley Fisher and Imogen Saxton, Sheffield Hallam Law Students

Footballer Marcus Rashford has been known in recent months for campaigning for children eligible for free school meals to be provided with lunches throughout the school holidays. More recently, however, the conversation has moved toward help regarding free school meals during the periods of national lockdown. The main goal of the current campaign is to bring awareness to the substandard lunches that are being sent out to children who are eligible for free school meals, with the hope that this will force the government to address the food parcels that they are effectively approving by allowing them to be distributed.

The Education Act 1996 requires maintained schools and academies to provide free school meals to disadvantaged pupils who are aged between 5 and 16 years old; the current government guidelines state that schools do not have to provide free school meals to children who are not in school, even if they are otherwise eligible. Eligibility is met by children whose parents receive certain government benefits, such as Universal Credit with an income of less than £7,400, or income-based jobseekers allowance, amongst others. With national lockdowns covering most of the past 12 months, however, the existing precedent regarding free school meals has fallen into unknown territory. During this time, schools have been expected by the government to have continued supporting children eligible for free school meals who are at home during term time.

Free school meals that were provided during this time were supplied by Chartwells, a company outsourced by the government with a £30 per child, per week allowance. Parents receiving these parcels flocked to social media sites to share their disappointment, with one parent calculating that the food that they received could have been bought from their local supermarket for just £5.22. With Marcus Rashford standing alongside disgruntled parents, the Department for Education was forced to respond assuring the public that they would look further into the offerings to ensure that their guidelines and standards were being met.

Due to this uproar, fronted by Marcus Rashford and backed by parents across the UK, a new government scheme, as of January 18th 2021, meant that schools were able to order free school meal vouchers for eligible students, whereby their parents could purchase their lunches rather than being sent the food from an outsourced provider. These vouchers, which hold £15 in value, are the restart of a scheme that was in place during 2020, but was discontinued due to concerns that the vouchers were not being used for their intended purpose.

Although the scheme introduced at the beginning of the year was a step in the right direction, the government is yet to memorialise these changes in attitude towards providing free school meals into statute, meaning that more still needs to be done to combat the current situation affecting society’s disadvantaged children.

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