Cost of living crisis: Number of children in food poverty nearly doubles in a year to four million

The findings have amped up pressure on ministers to offer free school meals to all primary school pupils in struggling households as grocery inflation hits 17.1 per cent.

The number of children in food poverty in the UK has almost doubled in a year to nearly four million, according to new research. The data, from the Food Foundation, shows that one in five (22 per cent) households reported skipping meals, going hungry or not eating at all for a whole day in January - up from 12 per cent in January last year.

It comes at a time when pressure is already on ministers to expand provision of free school meals to help families struggling with the cost of living crisis. In a separate survey by the foundation, eight out of 10 people in the UK (80 per cent) said they wanted to see free school meal eligibility extended to all children in households receiving Universal Credit.

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Around 800,000 children in poverty do not qualify for free school meals as households must have an annual income of under £7,400 after tax and not including benefits. Even though prices have risen since then, with food inflation hitting a record high of 17.1% this week, that threshold has been frozen since 2018.

As families already grapple with the rocketing costs of energy, a spike in inflation has meant that the average annual food bill has increased by a whopping £811 a year. It is believed that free school meals would save families about £440 per child annually.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced last month that all primary school pupils in the capital would be offered free school lunches for a year from September 2023. Wales is planning to provide free lunches to primary school pupils by 2024, with the scheme also being rolled out in Scotland.

A child carries a tray with food during lunch-break at St Mary’s RC Primary School, in Battersea, south London.A child carries a tray with food during lunch-break at St Mary’s RC Primary School, in Battersea, south London.
A child carries a tray with food during lunch-break at St Mary’s RC Primary School, in Battersea, south London. | AFP via Getty Images

Anna Taylor, the Food Foundation’s chief executive, said: “By extending free school meals to more children in England in the next budget, the government could deliver a policy change that is popular with voters, targeted and timely, and truly delivers on levelling up.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Since 2010 the number of children receiving a free meal at school has increased by more than two million, increasing the number of pupils who benefit from free school meals in education settings from just one in six, to over one third. On top of this, we have made a further investment in the national school breakfast programme to extend the programme for another year, backed by up to £30m.”

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