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This House of Commons Library briefing looks at the requirements on schools to provide nutritional meals, and the provision of free school meals.

This briefing relates to England only.

Nutritional standards

Nutritional standards are in place for state-funded school meals in England. They aim to ensure that the food given to pupils is nutritious and of high quality, and to promote good health and eating behaviour.

Funding for school meals is mostly provided through the Dedicated Schools Grant.

Free school meals

Free school meals are for children whose parents receive certain benefits (or who are receive those benefits themselves). These are:

  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseekers Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • The guaranteed element of State Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit (provided they are 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 four weeks after a person stops qualifying for Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit – with household income of less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits) from 1 April 2018, with transitional protections for existing claimants

Since September 2014, free school meals have been provided for all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2.

Since April 2018, households receiving Universal Credit with annual net earnings of over £7,400 no longer qualify for free school meals. The Government has estimated that, once benefits income was considered, this threshold equated to an overall household income of between £18,000 and £24,000.

Free school meals may also be available to pre-school children and those in school sixth forms, sixth form colleges, and further education colleges.

How many pupils are eligible?

In January 2023, there were around 2 million pupils known to be eligible for FSM. This means there has been an increase in the proportion eligible to 23.8% of state-funded pupils (from 22.5% in January 2022, and 20.8% in January 2021).

This increase could be driven by many factors including the Covid-19 pandemic and 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.

Meals during the school holidays

The Holiday Activities and Food Programme (HAFP) is funded by the Department for Education and is being extended to all local authority areas in England. It covers Easter, summer, and Christmas school holidays and continues in 2024.

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