Religious leaders back our campaign to urgently extend free school meals

Religious leaders have backed The Independent‘s call for free school meals to be extended to more children living in poverty and urged the government to make it one of its priorities this winter.

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Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, said: “It is heartbreaking to think of children living in poverty facing this winter without free school meals and the impact this will have on their health, well-being and educational outcomes.”

Our Feed the Future campaign, in partnership with the Food Foundation and a coalition of charities, calls on the government for free school meals to be extended to all children living in families that rely on universal credit.

Bishop Paul, who is lead Bishop for the Church of England in the House of Lords on welfare issues, added: “The Independent has shone a light on the heroic efforts of schools to step in and support their pupils and struggling families through initiatives such as school food banks but it really should not be down to them to fill this gap. I have long held that all children in families in receipt of universal credit should receive free school meals and I urge the government to give this priority in their spending plans.”

Currently, there are 800,000 pupils living in households in England that rely on universal credit but miss out on free school meals because their parents earn more than the threshold of £7,400 a year, excluding benefits. This is the equivalent to one full class in every school.

A spokeswoman for the Muslim Council of Britain said: “The impact of the pandemic, combined with an increasingly severe cost-of-living crisis and ongoing political turmoil, has meant that the scale and scope of hardship we are now seeing is deeply alarming. “The Muslim Council of Britain has long advocated for greater intervention from government to tackle the rising levels of poverty and inequality in the UK. It is unconscionable that 2.6 million children have experienced food insecurity, making child hunger an epidemic in our schools. The Muslim Council of Britain has joined a broad coalition of civil society groups to call for an extension of free school meals to all primary school children. No child should have to endure hunger. The prime minister must act, and swiftly.”

John Coleby, director of Caritas Westminster, the social action agency of the diocese of Westminster, said: “We wholeheartedly support this initiative, and are also worried about families who are struggling but not entitled to Universal Credit.”

Caritas Westminster provides direct support to schools in 16 London boroughs and Hertfordshire.

Nearly half of households supported are on low income but their children are not eligible for free school meals. Mr Coleby said one school told Caritas it has pupils that have to share beds with their parents – but still do not qualify for free school meals.

Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York said: “In one of the richest countries in the world it is nothing short of scandalous that children go to school hungry. As The Independent shows us, increasing numbers of children are unable to access free school meals. How can we expect children to gain the most from the precious gift of education if they are so hungry that they can’t concentrate?”

He added: “I believe that free school meals should be extended significantly as a way to get direct support to vulnerable children. As a minimum we need to widen access to free school meals as more children fall into poverty, but we also need to give our schools the resources they need to enable every child to flourish.

“The budget for those who currently receive free school meals has increased by 2 per cent, while food inflation runs at more than 14 per cent [so] schools are being asked to make impossible decisions. I hope the government will make addressing this issue one of its priorities in helping the hard-working families of our country.”

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