In a bid to ease financial burdens on families, the Mayor of London has revealed plans to extend free school meals for children for an additional year. The initiative, set to be funded by £140 million from the 2024/25 budget, aims to save families an estimated £1,000 per child.
Presently, children in the UK qualify for free school meals if their parents receive certain benefits, including Universal Credit, Income Support, and Child Tax Credit. With this extension, all children in London will benefit from free school meals, irrespective of their parents’ financial circumstances.
The proposed budget allocation follows last year’s spending of £135 million on the program, which has been instrumental in delivering meals to approximately 287,000 children daily. Officials report that between September and Christmas, the initiative has funded over 17 million meals, underlining its significant impact on supporting families.
The decision to allocate £140 million for the extension comes after the Government’s release of the provisional local government settlement just before Christmas, providing the assurance that the move is financially viable.
A recent poll by YouGov, commissioned by City Hall, revealed that 35% of parents or carers of children under 18 are purchasing fewer food and essentials, while 41% are reducing water, energy, or fuel usage to manage living costs. Additionally, 30% admit to facing financial struggles. Another poll indicated that 92% of parents whose children receive school dinners overwhelmingly support universal free school meals, citing reasons such as time-saving (71%), nutritional value (62%), and the fact that they are free (62%).
The distribution of the allocated funds will be based on the number of Key Stage 2 pupils (Year 3 to Year 6) in each London borough as per the 2021 Census. This financial support is intended for families not meeting the criteria for existing Government assistance programs. Councils will subsequently allocate the funds to schools within their boroughs.
Parents of children in Years 3 to 6 will receive free meals directly through their schools, eliminating the need for a direct application process. Meanwhile, children in Reception and Years 1 and 2 already receive free school meals funded by the Government.
However, critics argue that the Mayor’s fund falls short of addressing the full scope of the issue, potentially leaving some areas with inadequate funding while families in need miss out.
Responding to the announcement, the Mayor expressed commitment to helping families cope with the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. He highlighted the positive impact of free school meals on children’s performance and the significant relief it provides to families who no longer need to worry about providing a healthy, nutritious meal during the school day.
Renowned chefs expressed their support for the initiative. One commended the Mayor for his decision, emphasizing the crucial role of nutritious school meals in children’s overall wellbeing and educational success. Another praised the move as a significant reduction in the burden on parents facing the challenges of the cost-of-living crisis.
In conclusion, the Mayor’s commitment to extending free school meals demonstrates a proactive approach to addressing the financial challenges faced by families in London. As the initiative gains traction with support from influential figures, it remains to be seen how this extension will impact the lives of children and families, providing a lifeline amidst the broader economic struggles.