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Since the start of the pandemic, household food insecurity increased, the use of food banks reached its highest levels, and campaign groups highlighted the importance of free school meals for families in the UK.

This paper provides statistics on food poverty in the UK, including food banks and free school meals.

Food poverty

There is no widely accepted definition of ‘food poverty’, but a household can broadly be defined as experiencing food poverty or ‘household food insecurity’ if they cannot (or are uncertain about whether they can) acquire ‘an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways’.

In 2019/20, 5 million people (8%) were in food insecure households. Among those in relative poverty, 19% were in food insecure households, including 26% of children.

Household food insecurity increased during the coronavirus pandemic. The Food Foundation found that 4.7 million adults and 2.3 million children lived in household which experienced food insecurity in the first 6 months of the pandemic, including 12% of all households with children.

Food banks

Food banks are run by charities and are intended to be a temporary provision to supply emergency food aid. There are no official statistics on food banks, but there are around 1,300 Trussell Trust food banks and 1,034 Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) food banks in the UK.

In 2020-21 the Trussell Trust supplied more than 2.5 million three-day emergency food parcels, an increase of 33% on the previous year.  Around 40% of these went to children. IFAN reported a 126% increase in the number of emergency food parcels distributed between February 2020 and May 2020.

Free school meals

In England, free school meals (FSM) are currently a legal entitlement available to eligible pupils. Local authorities are responsible for providing free school meals.

As of January 2021, there were 1.74 million pupils known to eligible for FSM. This is an increase in the proportion eligible to 20.8% of all state-funded pupils (from 19.7% in October 2020, 17.3% in January 2020, and 15.4% in January 2019).

Around 427,000 pupils became eligible since the first lockdown on 23 March 2020. This is a much larger increase compared to the same period the previous year (March 2019 to January 2020) when around 292,000 children became eligible.

As well as the pandemic, other factors could be contributing to the increase, such as the continued effect of the transitional protections during the rollout of Universal Credit. These are policies which preserve the eligibility status of pupils who could get free school meals before the universal credit income threshold was introduced.

On average, pupils eligible for free school meals achieve lower GCSE attainment than other pupils. In 2020, 49% of pupils eligible for FSM achieved a “standard pass” in both English and Maths GCSE compared to 75% of pupils not eligible. This was a gap of 26 percentage points. This gap has remained broadly the same in recent years.

However, there are also large differences in both attainment and the attainment gap between different groups of pupils eligible for free school meals. For example, pupils eligible for free school meals attending schools in London have the highest attainment by far compared to eligible pupils in other regions. The attainment gap between eligible pupils in London, compared to pupils that are not eligible is also the smallest of any region.

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