Growing funding gap for free school meals for children, ministers have warned

Schools are at risk of a growing gap between the funding they get for free school meals and how much they cost, a former Conservative minister has warned.

Winchester MP Steve Brine will lead a parliamentary debate on Tuesday raising the alarm on the issue.

All children in England in the reception class, Year 1 and Year 2 are entitled to free school meals regardless of their family income.

But Mr Brine has heard from schools in his constituency that they say the funds they get to pay for free school meals for children are no longer enough to cover the costs.

Before the debate, he said: ‘A number of principals in my area have signaled to me that there is a growing gap between what they get and what they have to pay for school meals for their young children.

“They are subsidizing this from an already reduced budget and, clearly, it’s not a sustainable position in the long or even the short term.

“They need urgent help from ministers to fill this gap or support from the government and local authorities to look for alternative arrangements.”

A school in the former Conservative minister’s Hampshire constituency pays £2.80 per school meal, while receiving £2.41 in funding, a gap of 39 pence per meal.

This is an additional cost of around £3,000 per annum to the school budget.

Brine suggested ministers may need to investigate how to make the market for school meals provision more competitive as a solution to the situation.

He added: “Very often there is little in the way of a competitive market in this field, so it’s not always an option either.

“Free school meals are still what they are for now, at least they are for parents, but it won’t stay that way without proactive action.”

Investigation of Steve Brine

Conservative MP Steve Brine (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

His warning about the growing gap has been echoed by businesses that supply food to schools.

James Bielby, chief executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, said the industry was hit by energy price inflation and labor shortages.

He told the AP News Agency: ‘Although the pupil meal rate for universal children’s free school meals has been raised from £2.34 to £2.41 in 2022, it had risen by just 9 pence in previous decade and is nowhere near to adjust for long-term inflation, not to mention the recent increase in the cost of service of local authority contracts.

“This has unfortunately led to a lower quality of food supplied to schools, which has a knock-on impact on pupils with many of the benefits of school food being lost, with fewer hot meals being served.

“Some regional distributors have hinted that they may not be able to bid for future school meals contracts without a significant increase in government funding for free school meals for children.”

Andy Kemp, group executive director of Bidfood UK, one of the largest suppliers of school food, said: “We are increasingly seeing contractors and local authorities withdrawing from their school food supply and only offering a sandwich service of basis to those children that free school meals are allowed, which is simply inappropriate.

“The level of government funding increases for free child meals and free school meals is insufficient and completely out of alignment when compared with food inflation, the increase in the national minimum wage, the RPI and the ‘IPC”.

The debate in Westminster Hall will take place on Tuesday at 11.00.

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