Nearly one in ten kids live in poverty but cannot access free school meals, report says

Reporter: Ethan Davies, Local Democracy Reporter
Date published: 06 February 2024

Nearly one in ten children in Greater Manchester are living in poverty and CANNOT access free school meals, a shocking new report has revealed. 

The report from Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) with GM Poverty Action has found 46,000 children are living in relative poverty but cannot access free school meals because the government’s criteria is ‘too restrictive’, the organisation claims.

There are around 585,000 under-15s living in the city-region, meaning eight percent of all children fall into this category.

Currently, government rules dictate that free school meals can only be given to schoolchildren whose parents receive one or more of a range of benefits, including universal credit.

However, to qualify for free school meals via universal credit the family must earn less than £7,400 net annually - a threshold which hasn’t changed since 2018, despite soaring inflation levels.

And it is that cut-off that campaigners have branded ‘cruel’.

Kate Anstey, from report co-authors the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) with GM Poverty Action, said: “Too many children are being let down by the Government’s cruel free school meals cut-off threshold - and these numbers should act as a wake-up call.”

She has also called on ministers to ‘bring in universal free school meals to ensure every child has the food they need and struggling families get breathing space from high costs’. 

“Means-testing children at lunchtime should be a thing of the past,” she added.

That is a call which Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has publicly backed.

In a statement to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, he said: “We support GM Poverty Action’s call for a review of national free school meal policy, and believe a targeted approach would deliver the best outcomes for young people in our city-region.

"Pupils will never thrive inside and outside the classroom, if they are learning on an empty stomach.

“Three years ago, we established a Food Security Action Network, to tackle food poverty and end holiday hunger in Greater Manchester.

"No-one in Britain should go hungry, and no child should be refused a hot, healthy meal, should they need one.”

Broken down borough-by-borough, Manchester has by far the highest number of children in poverty that don’t get free school meals, at 10,500, the data suggests.

Next highest is Bolton with 5,500, then Oldham with 5,000.

Three authorities have 4,000 children in such a position - Wigan, Salford, and Rochdale - with Tameside and Trafford having 3,500 each.

The smallest numbers were seen in Stockport and Bury, at 3,000 each.

The city-region has been a hub of campaigning on free school meals, with Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford, who was raised in Withington and Wythenshawe, leading the calls to provide meal vouchers over school holidays last year, and eventually forced a government U-turn.

The Department for Education was contacted for comment on this story.

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