Money Wellness
school children in a school canteen
category iconcost of living
calendar icon09 Apr 2024

900,000 children living in poverty in England aren’t eligible for free school meals

New polling of over 2000 parents across the UK released by the Children's Food Campaign revealed overwhelming support for expanding school meals to all children. While the Spring Budget extended Household support fund for another six months ((which funds school holiday food vouchers in many areas)  nothing was said about free school meals for children.

An estimated 900,000 children in England are living in poverty but aren’t entitled to meals under the current eligibility criteria.

Which children are eligible for free school meals?

This depends if you, or in some cases, your child gets any of the following:

  • Income support
  • income-based jobseeker’s allowance
  • income-related employment and support allowance
  • support under part VI of the immigration and asylum act 1999
  • the guaranteed element of pension credit
  • child tax credit (provided you’re not also entitled to working tax credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)
  • Working tax credit run-on - paid for 4 weeks after you stop qualifying for working tax credit
  • Universal credit - if you apply on or after 1 April 2018 your household income must be less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits you get)

The strict eligibility criteria isn’t the only thing barrier affecting children’s access to free school meals. From the polling, run by Savanta on behalf of Children's Food Campaign, 8 in 10 parents (81%)  support the idea of automatic registration for free school meals. Under the current free school meal system, the requirement to register for free school meals can be a key barrier to uptake. An estimated one in ten children (11%) who are entitled to free school meals aren’t registered for them, which is around 200,000-250,000 children in total.

This also means their schools are missing out on important pupil premium funding. Transitioning to an automated registration process (with an opt-out option) would mean that every child currently entitled to a free school meal can access one. 

The data also revealed:

  • 9 in 10 parents (89%) want to see immediate expansion of free school meals to every child living in poverty.
  • More than 7 in 10 parents (75%) would like all children of all ages to have access to a free school meal, regardless of their background.
  • Nearly 8 in 10 (77%) would like to see a progressive, phased expansion of school meals to all children.

Struggling with food costs?

Food Banks

If you need to use a food bank, you can get a referral from official sources like your child’s school, a doctor, social worker, or your local Citizen’s Advice.

You can find your nearest food bank at Trussell Trust. The Independent Food Aid Network also has a map of 1,172 independent banks operating across the UK. Get in contact with them and they’ll be able to provide you with details on how you can get referred.

What will I get from a food bank?

Food banks offer you a food parcel. You usually need a referral to use a food bank, and some food banks will only allow you to be referred once, so you can’t rely on it as a long-term solution.  

You will need to be able to collect your food parcel from the address that will be given to you once you’ve been referred. If you can’t get to a food bank because you live rurally, they might deliver to you.

Benefit entitlement

If you can’t cover day-to-day costs, like food, you should check you’re claiming all the financial help you’re entitled to. We speak to lots of people who aren’t claiming all the benefits they should be. Make sure you’re not missing out on help you’re entitled to by using our online benefits calculator.

Free supermarket food

If you’re more than 10 weeks pregnant or caring for at least one child under 4, you could be entitled to help to buy healthy food and milk through the Healthy Start scheme.

If you’re eligible, you’ll be sent a Healthy Start card with money on it that you can use in some UK shops. Your card will be topped up every four weeks and can be used to buy:

  • Plain liquid cow’s milk
  • Fresh, frozen, and tinned fruit and vegetables
  • Fresh, dried, and tinned pulses
  • Infant formula milk based on cow’s milk

You can also use your card to collect:

  • Healthy Start vitamins – to support you during pregnancy and breastfeeding
  • Vitamin drops for babies and young children – suitable from birth to 4 years old

Other places worth knowing

Even though not all these places give away free food, they’re much more affordable than typical supermarkets and can help you feed a family with very little money.

Foodcycle offers completely free hot meals to people who need them on a weekly basis. You don’t need a referral or to book – just turn up. Visit Foodcycle to find your closest centre.

Community fridges bring people together to eat for free, connect, learn new skills, and reduce food waste. They’re places where you can collect free surplus food and sanitary products with no questions asked. There are hundreds of community fridges across the country. Find your nearest one at

Acting as a cross between food banks and supermarkets, Community Grocery, allows members to access food and life skills support, such as cookery classes. It isn’t completely free – you pay £5 a year for membership - which enables you to visit your local Community Grocery up to three times a week for free food. You also don’t need a referral to join.

Your Local Pantry is similar to the Community Grocery scheme. For a few pounds a week you can fill your basket with food worth considerably more including fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, and store cupboard favourites. You also don’t need to be referred to join. Apply at Local Pantry.

Feeding Britain is an award-winning charity with a vision of a UK where no one goes hungry. It run a number of initiatives to help people access free or low-cost food and meals. Visit Feeding Britain to see what’s happening locally to you.

Apps offering free food

Olio is an app that lets people pass on food that they don’t need to people living nearby. Once you’ve downloaded the app and chosen your local area, you can see who’s offering what near you. Run on a first come, first served basis, you’ll need to collect any of the food you claim.

There might also be ‘random acts of kindness’ or ‘buy nothing’ Facebook groups for your local area, where people give away surplus food and other household items for free.


Avatar of Lydia Bell-Jones

Lydia Bell-Jones

With a background in banking, Lydia has been writing professionally for over five years. She is passionate about helping people improve their personal finances and has a particular interest in the connection between money and mental health.

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