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Child Hunger in Schools

Volume 825: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in response to research on increased child hunger in schools, including that published by Chefs in Schools on 18 October, which found that 83 per cent of primary school teachers said that children were coming to school hungry.

My Lords, I thank Chefs in Schools for commissioning this survey. Under the benefits-related criteria, the Government provide a free healthy meal in term time to around 1.9 million children. Eligibility has been extended several times, and to more groups of children than under any other Government over the past half century. This has included the introduction of universal infant free school meals and further education free meals. We continue to keep eligibility under review.

My Lords, when so many teachers are reporting children coming to school hungry, with heartbreaking accounts of hungry children in tears or even stealing food because their parents cannot afford enough food, something is going very wrong, despite what the Minister said. Does she accept the evidence that hunger adversely affects children’s ability to learn and their health and well-being? Given all the evidence, why do the Government reject the growing calls for free school meals to be extended to the 800,000 children in families on universal credit who do not qualify? At the very least, why do they not inflation-proof the net earnings eligibility limit of £7,400, set in 2018?

Well, of course the Government accept that, if children are hungry, it makes it harder for them to learn. But I point out that the survey looked at a relatively small number of teachers—around 520—while there are 250,000 primary school teachers in our schools. To reiterate my first Answer, the number of children receiving free school meals is the highest that it has ever been, and the Government’s strategy has been to support the disadvantaged in this cost of living crisis. There are ways of doing that; the noble Baroness is familiar with the energy support package and other measures that we have taken so that no child should have to go hungry.

My Lords, has the Minister noticed the appalling rise in the number of children who are now below the poverty line in the north-east of England? Up until 2010, there was a decrease in the number of children who were in that category in the north-east, but the number has risen more than in any other region and is now the highest in the country. This is shocking and of course affects their school performance and future prospects. Along with going hungry, that is something no Government should accept. What will the Government do about it?

Since day 1, the Government have been clear that our absolute priority is levelling up opportunity across the country, including, of course and importantly, in the north-east. I understand the noble Baroness’s concerns, which are shared by my ministerial colleagues. But I point her to the £12 billion in direct support that we are targeting to the most vulnerable families in 2023-24.

The point that more people now have school dinners is actually wrong because, when I was a young boy in the 1950s and 1960s, we had free school dinners, olive oil capsules and milk—all the things that children need now. So could the Minister consider going back to those old days?

The noble Lord reminds a number of us of our schooldays, although I cannot remember the olive oil capsules—anyway, they sound very healthy. More seriously, the Government are thinking about this, not only in term time but in the holidays with our holiday activities and food programme, making sure that the children who need it most get the support that they need.

Can my noble friend the Minister—not wanting to go back to the 1960s, when people were given free school meals, but looking to the future—say how schools have expanded the breakfast clubs that are available? Can she also say a little more about this survey? Did I hear correctly that she said it was based on 500 teachers out of about 200,000?

We genuinely welcome every bit of research that helps us understand the issues that families are facing. As my noble friend picked up on, I was making the point that, in this case, the survey sample was just over 500 teachers in primary schools—and, overall, we have about a quarter of a million of them. In relation to breakfast clubs, we have invested £24 million over the last two years in supporting school breakfast provision. That again is targeted absolutely at the most disadvantaged children, making sure that it reaches those who need it.

My Lords, the Minister said in answer to an earlier question that no child should have to go hungry. I am sure that the whole House agrees with that, but the truth is that, every day, tens of thousands of children go hungry because they come from poor households but are not eligible for free school meals. Unless eligibility is extended to children from families in receipt of universal credit, there is no way that, in many cases, children will be going to school without being hungry. Would the Minister accept that that is the truth and use it for the basis of future policy development?

I will say two things in response. First, of course we will keep the policy under review. But I am sure that the noble Lord would accept that you cannot take funding for free school meals separately from other elements of support for vulnerable families. Secondly, the point that I have been making is that the support for those families, under this Government, has been targeted and extensive.

My Lords, the food strategy of just this year said that it hoped it would spark a school food revolution. This has not happened. The Chefs in Schools report makes for stark reading and includes shocking revelations about the sheer scale of child hunger. When will the UK Government follow the Welsh Labour Government’s lead in providing breakfast clubs and investing in all our children?

I have already referred to the point about breakfast clubs. The Government are already investing in breakfast clubs and we remain open to new evidence, but our focus is on the most vulnerable.

The Minister well understands that the children who are hungry at school may well have other vulnerabilities, and therefore the one point of contact between the child and the state is their school. Could the Minister continue to do all that she is doing—I know she is doing a lot—to make sure that schools are aware of looking at the whole child and not just thinking about academic subjects, important though they are?

The noble Lord, as ever, makes an important point. We really are looking at that closely, not just in a school setting but, as importantly, in relation to early years and nursery settings. He will be aware that, post Covid, many children are arriving at school who are not school-ready in the way that we expected, and we are looking at that.

My Lords, locally sourced food could be served in schools and other local authority institutions such as prisons and hospitals. If 50% of all the food served in school meals was locally sourced, would this not reduce the cost of production?

I am more than happy to take that back to the department to look at. We are very focused on the standard of school food and supporting schools to give children a truly nutritious lunch each day.

If I may, I will point out that we have heard only once from the Liberal Democrat Benches; others have been heard twice.

My Lords, of course no child should go starving. Would the Minister not consider extending the coalition’s policy of giving free school meals to all key stage 1 children to key stage 2, and at secondary school—key stage 3—ensure that every pupil whose parents are on universal credit gets a free school meal?

I think I have tried to answer that question in a couple of ways. It comes down to: should the Government be funding a number of separate things to support parents or should the Government be putting money in the hands of parents so that they can make the choices that are right for their families? This Government believe in the latter.