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UK Free School Meals: How Many Children Need Them?

In England, households must earn less than £7,400 a year before benefits and after taxes to qualify. This means that 800,000 children living in poverty are not eligible.


Families are only eligible for free school meals if they have an annual income of less than £7,400 before tax and benefits.


Due to inflation, more than 100,000 children in England do not receive free school meals, according to new research.


If the limit had been allowed to rise in line with inflation, it would now be £8,575, according to an analysis by the Liberal Democrats, making approximately 110,000 more children eligible.


The government has been accused of "snatching school lunches by the back door" by freezing the eligibility threshold.


Despite growing evidence of the devastation caused by the cost of living crisis, the government has thus far rejected calls from activists to expand eligibility for free school meals.


In England and Wales, children aged 4 to 16 who live in households receiving income-related benefits (such as universal credit)  are eligible for free school meals.


However, roughly 40% of universal credit claimants are employed. You can therefore receive the benefit, but because your income exceeds the threshold, your children do not qualify for free school meals.


The income limit in Scotland is £7,920, while in Northern Ireland it is £14,000.


According to data from the Department of Work and Pensions, approximately 1.07 million children in England between the ages of five and sixteen live in households below the poverty line. However, 1.18 million fewer children would be eligible if the age limit had increased with inflation.


The Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, and senior Labour and Conservative MPs have backed the call to increase support for the estimated 800,000 children living in poverty who are not eligible for free school meals due to their family's income.


However, Rishi Sunak and his chancellor Jeremy Hunt will reject any extension of free school meals in the autumn Budget on 17 November.


In England, regardless of household income, all infant state school students (Reception to Year 2) receive free school meals during the school year.


The free school meal programme in Scotland covers P1 through P5 students.


The Welsh government will provide free school lunches to all primary school students by 2024, beginning this September with Reception students.


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