Pandemic sparks free school meals increase
More than 1,700 children in Sunderland became eligible for free school meals during the coronavirus pandemic, new figures show.
The Children’s Society says the increase is worrying and highlight the damaging impact of Covid-19 on already struggling families.
Department for Education figures suggest that the pandemic led to a spike in the number of youngsters qualifying for free meals for the first time – increasing from 991 in autumn 2019 to 1,733 last autumn – bringing the number in Sunderland qualified for free meals to 11,037.
That is over a quarter of children in school and made up of 52% of pupils at special schools, 26% at primaries and 28% at secondaries.
Free meals can be claimed if a parent or carer receives at least one of a range of means tested benefits.
Pupils studying remotely through the pandemic were provided with food parcels or vouchers.
Azmina Siddique from The Children’s Society called for the scheme to be extended further to permanently incorporate low-income families that are not currently eligible.
She said: “We know that the pandemic has had damaging consequences for struggling families, with many facing job losses and falls in income.
“It’s vital that the Government does more to support families who are struggling to make ends meet.”
Nationally, more than 1.6m children were eligible for free school meals in October 2020, up from 1.4m in January of that year.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said “We have ensured that throughout this period, schools have continued to accept applications for free school meals, providing meals to anyone who becomes newly eligible, including while pupils were learning remotely.”