It is almost dinner in the canteen at St. Mary’s Primary School. School children in blue uniforms arrive in rows. Some get a plate of chicken with vegetables, the dish of the day, and then sit around the plastic tables. Others eat a cold meal, brought from home.
At this school in south London, many come from poor families and half the pupils get a free meal in the state-funded canteen.
But not all households meet the criteria and in the midst of an economic crisis some parents are struggling to pay the £2.40 (€2.80) for lunch.
Claire Mitchell, the school’s deputy headteacher, sees families’ financial situation worsening since the pandemic, which has only worsened with the cost of living crisis.
“Families have lost their jobs or working hours. (…) And in a city like London, where prices are constantly rising, they can no longer make ends meet,” she explains.
Inflation in the UK is close to 11% and the rise in prices is much higher for energy bills or food. The most insecure are the hardest hit.
British media reports stories from across the country of teachers and even children sharing their meals with students who have almost nothing in their packed lunches. Others say that children hide out of modesty.
St. Mary’s has its own food bank and more and more parents are asking to be able to come and pick up groceries there, Ms Mitchell says. However, she knows that others hide their financial difficulties out of pride or fear of stigma.
“We live in one of the most prosperous cities in the world, it’s shocking,” she says indignantly.
Millions of Britons are giving up heating or eating properly and skipping meals, and children are not being spared, according to numerous studies.
According to the charity The Sutton Trust, which surveyed teachers, the number of children whose families can no longer afford lunch at school has risen in half of public schools in England with the cost of living crisis.
– Impact on the future –
“You have to earn a maximum of £7,400 a year, on top of social assistance, to benefit from free school meals, this ceiling is too low”, especially for large families, protests Stephanie Slater, founder of the School Food Matters association is important), interviewed by AFP.
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) estimates that 800,000 poor children in England are not eligible for free school meals because of overly restrictive criteria.
CPAG as School Food Matters is calling for meals in public schools in England to be free “as is the case in some European countries such as Finland”.
England soccer star Marcus Rashford and star singer Zayn Malik, who enjoyed free school meals as children, campaigned against the Conservative governments of Boris Johnson and then Rishi Sunak, helping to put the issue in the public square.
The mayor of London, the boss of the supermarket giant Tesco… many voices are calling for an extension of the criteria or even free school meals in primary schools in public education.
Elsewhere in the UK, Wales or Scotland are moving towards this solution, and in London certain districts have taken the initiative to fund them.
But Rishi Sunak’s government remains inflexible.
“More than a third of pupils in England benefit from free meals (…) and we are expanding the national school breakfast program with an investment of £30 million”, defends a spokeswoman for the government, joined by AFP.
Professionals point out that going to school hungry can have lasting consequences.
“Obviously there are many factors that cause students to struggle at school, but hunger plays a big role in children who have trouble concentrating,” notes Claire Mitchell, assistant principal of St Mary’s.
“It can prevent them from reaching their potential” and limit their future prospects, she laments.