Eligible to eat

Emily Whitton
By Emily Whitton,
updated on Feb 15, 2023

Eligible to eat

A new study has revealed that many children who are not eligible for free school meals are going hungry

The University of York and the Bradford Institute for Health Research are calling for the free school meals (FSM) eligibility criteria to be widened, following research that shows that 20% of children who do not meet the requirements for FSM are experiencing food insecurities and poor mental health.

Those that meet FSM criteria are typically considered to be living below the poverty line. The research published in the British Medical Journal has since noted that food insecurities go beyond the school environment and are also present at home, making FSM entitlement even more crucial to children’s wellbeing and development. Those that are eligible for FSM receive a significant proportion of their daily energy and nutrients from school dinners, but 60% of those children still felt insecure about where their next meal would come from, due to not having enough or lacking quality food at home. Of these children, 51% experience daily worry and stress as a result of the stigma attached to FSM, which drastically impacts their mental health and ability to flourish at school.

However, these statistics are not limited to those who are able to receive free school meals. 20% of children surveyed who did not qualify for FSM also experienced insecurities related to food, and 29% of these children were at risk of feeling stressed and worried on a daily basis. This is why researchers from the University of York and Bradford Institute for Health Research want the FSM criteria to be expanded beyond those families below the poverty line to include those from low-income households.

“If this eligibility threshold was raised, then not only would it shake the stigma of Free School Meals being associated with poverty, it would mean fewer children overall would go hungry and fewer children would experience anxiety and stress on a daily basis,” says Dr Tiffany Yang, Principle Research Fellow at the Bradford Insitute for Health Research.

During the pandemic, the number of children who were eligible for FSM rose from 17.3% of state-funded pupils in 2020 to 19.7% in 2021, according to data from the Food Foundation and Childwise. With the current cost of living crisis, this figure is set to rise even further.

Impact on children’s mental health

Despite the FSM scheme having its benefits, its strict income-eligibility checks can actually indicate poverty. Dr Maria Bryant (Reader in Public Health Nutrition at the University of York) states that free school meals should not be a marker of poverty, but instead the scheme should allow more children to access free school meals, to reduce the stress and anxiety of being labelled a “child living in poverty”. This stigma attached to FSM can not only create feelings of worry amongst these pupils but, in serious cases, may also lead to the child being bullied.

This would not only reduce the impact on wellbeing that those from low-income households experience, but it would also reduce the inequalities these children experience in the classroom. A study by the Department for Education found that pupils who were eligible for FSM have lower average ‘attainment 8’ scores (a measure of academic performance) than those who are not eligible for FSM, suggesting that those from lower-income households can be academically disadvantaged compared to peers from higher-income families if they are not receiving adequate nutrition to fuel their brains at home. This makes the need to widen the eligibility to include those who are not below the poverty line but are from a low-income household, all the more important.

Back in May, teaching unions and others representing school staff in England wrote to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, requesting an urgent change to FSM to allow those who are more vulnerable the access they need.

What to do if you’re worried about your child

If you’re worried about your child’s mental health, speaking with a counsellor or therapist can be really helpful.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for support, visit Counselling Directory.

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