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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 school meals in England, aimed at ensuring that the food provided to pupils in school is nutritious and of high quality, and at promoting good health and eating behaviour amongst pupils.

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

Free school meals

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

  • 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 4 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.

Eligibility rates

In January 2022, there were around 1.9 million pupils known to eligible for FSM. This means there has been an increase in the proportion eligible to 22.5% of state-funded pupils (from 20.8% in January 2021, and 17.3% in January 2020).

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.

School meals during the Coronavirus pandemic

During the initial coronavirus lockdown schools were closed to most pupils, and meals or food vouchers were provided to children staying at home. The provision of support outside of term time has been contentious issue during the pandemic. Vouchers were provided during the 2020 Easter, May half term and summer holidays. A Covid Winter Grant Scheme, to be run by councils in England, has been announced to provide support from December 2020-April 2021.

Most pupils were again not in school during the national lockdown that began in January 2021. Families entitled to free school meals were offered food parcels or vouchers, funded by the Government.

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 the Easter, summer, and Christmas school holidays and will continue in 2023.

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