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LOCKDOWN: Free school meal uptake drops during the pandemic

LOCKDOWN: Free school meal uptake drops during the pandemic

The contents of the box given to families who get free school meals in Gateshead, Image: Gateshead Council

Uptake of free school meals in Gateshead has plummeted during the pandemic and bad lockdown eating habits have been blamed.

Gateshead Council and Citizens Advice Gateshead warn that the proportion of pupils taking up free school meals (FSM) in the borough has dropped significantly over the past year, despite an increase in eligibility.

The authority’s data shows that the number of Gateshead schoolchildren eligible for FSMs increased by 17% from January 2020 to October 2020, as many families felt the financial pinch.

Despite this, the number of children receiving free meals has gone down.

FSM eligibility, which is measured using means-tested benefits such as Universal Credit, increased as job losses and financial hardship ensued as a consequence of the pandemic.

Normally, such a rise in eligibility would increase the number of pupils receiving free meals.

However, uptake rates have dropped from 83% to 66% since the first lockdown.

This means a massive number of eligible children are not opting for a free meal at school.

The impact of the pandemic has been blamed for the drop as  measures that schools have taken to ensure children and their families were kept safe may have had the unintended consequence of making lunchtime less enjoyable.

Schools had to make compromises to get through lunchtime safely, such as social distancing and staggered eating times.

Pared down menus and packed lunches have become an alternative to a school meal.

Children may also have also picked up bad eating habits as a result of spending more time at home.

Coun Catherine Donovan, deputy leader, Gateshead Council, said that free school meals save families money.

She said: “Free school meals have proven nutritional and wellbeing benefits, guaranteeing that children are given a healthy meal every day at school. The programme saves parents time and money, equivalent to £15 a week, and helps children to develop good eating habits that can last a lifetime.”

Registering for free school meals, if eligible, is also good for schools.

Schools receive a pupil premium of around £1,500 per pupil per year when a child registers for free school meals, and a downturn in registrations could hit them in the pocket.

Alison Dunn, CEO Citizens Advice Gateshead added:  “The benefits of free school meals are incredible from both a health and financial perspective, with eligible families able to save around £15 per week in meal costs. It’s easy to apply, you can find out more by visiting your local council’s website. If you’re unsure whether or not you are eligible to register, do contact Citizens Advice Gateshead or your local Citizens Advice office for free information and advice.”


Words: Herbert Soden, Local Democracy Reporter

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