Free school meals criteria ‘always under review’, minister says

The criteria for who qualifies for free school meals is “always under review”, the education minister has said.

Gillian Keegan was pressed on whether it would be expanded to support more children on Wednesday morning.

The number of children who qualify for free school meals – which supports disadvantaged pupils – has jumped to nearly 2 million this year.

A further 800,000 in poverty are estimated to fall outside the eligibility criteria, which does not cover families on Universal Credit once their income exceeds £7,400 after tax.

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The Independent’s Feed the Future campaign is calling on the government to expand free school meals to all children in poverty,

Ms Keegan, the new education secretary in Rishi Sunak’s government, was asked about the criteria for the scheme on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday.

“Free school meals has been something that I was looking at recently, and actually it’s gone up by 300,000 in just the last couple of years,” she said.

“So it’s actually the largest cohort of children who now receive free school meals – about 1.9 million, more than a third of children.”

When it was put to the minister that this means there are more people falling into poverty, she noted that children stay on free school meals for a number of years even if their circumstances change.

Asked if the low threshold for eligibility will be changed, Ms Keegan said: “These things are always kept under review.”

She added: “The reality is you have to wait for the autumn budget for any answers on funding.

“As I say, more than one third of children now are eligible for or receive free school meals or food in schools. So I think that’s a lot of children.”

Ms Keegan and Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, were urged to urgently expand the free school meals scheme in a letter from healthcare leaders and charity bosses sent last week to “improve children’s nutrition and protect their health”.

The government has so far resisted calls for this despite the cost of living crisis stretching budgets across the country.

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