Struggling families outside of London having to send their children to school without food

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Struggling families outside of London report having to send children to school without food in England’s school lunch postcode lottery


A joint survey by The Food Foundation and The Bread and Butter Thing (TBBT), with data analysed by Dr Megan Blake from the University of Sheffield, has found families outside of London are having to send their children to school without food due to the cost of living crisis.

Earlier this month it was announced that Universal Free School Meals for state primary school children in London will be extended for another year, whilst families across the rest of England are still facing strict eligibility criteria.

The Food Foundation, an independent charity, and The Bread and Butter Thing (TBBT), who run 120 food clubs for people on low incomes across the North West, North East, Yorkshire and the Midlands, has been consulting families outside of the capital to find out how national government’s lack of action is affecting children across the rest of England.

A survey of nearly 3,000 of TBBT's food club members, who have signed up to have access to low cost weekly shopping bags, was conducted with data analysed by Dr Megan Blake from the University of Sheffield. The study found that of the households that didn’t have access to free school meals:

  • 16% had to send their child to school without lunch some days because they couldn’t afford school meals or packed lunches, with an additional 42% worried this would happen in the future 
  • 32% said their child ate a smaller lunch at school some days because they cannot afford school meals or packed lunches 
  • 31% said their child eats a less healthy lunch at school some days because they cannot afford school meals or packed lunches 
  • 85% wanted their child to receive free school meals
That Bread and Butter Thing survey results

Emergency measures were introduced in February 2023 by the Mayor of London so that all state primary school children in London had access to free school meals to support families through the ongoing cost of living crisis.

This measure was initially put in place for a year. Earlier this month it was announced the policy would be extended for a second year.

Whilst the extension is welcome support for families in London, outside of London, only children from households with an income below £7,400 a year (after tax, before benefits) are eligible. This threshold has not increased since 2018, despite the cost of living crisis and high inflation rates.

There are 900,000 children living in poverty in England who are missing out on national eligibility for Free School Meals due to the strict threshold set by government.

The Food Foundation is calling on politicians from all parties to extend access to Free School Meals to all school children, with the first step being to immediately target children from families receiving Universal Credit.

Previous polling from The Food Foundation, shows that a lack of action from national policy makers is at odds with very strong public support for FSM, with 78% of adults in England in a recent representative poll of 3,000 people saying that they support FSM provision.

Support for expanding provision holds regardless of political persuasion: 82% of Labour voters and over half (53%) of Conservative voters are in favour of extending FSM immediately to all children receiving Universal Credit, followed by extending it to all school children in the future.

The majority of people (70%) think the current threshold of under £7,400 is inadequate or should not be there at all.

Support for FSM among teachers is also high: 83% of teachers feel that there are children who come to school hungry because their families cannot afford enough food, and that this number has increased in recent months.

85% of teachers think that currently ineligible children would benefit from FSM. Teachers’ unions, such as the National Education Union, the National Governance Association (NGA), NASUWT and National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) have all supported the call for FSM expansion.

Shona Goudie, Policy and Advocacy Manager at The Food Foundation, said: "Lack of action by national policy makers to extend eligibility criteria for school lunches is unfair and will only serve to exacerbate regional inequalities, with schoolchildren outside of London not having access to the same benefits and life chances.

"There are hundreds of thousands of children outside the capital who are living below the poverty line but don’t qualify for a nutritious school lunch.

"As we enter an election year, policymakers across the board should commit to ensuring no child in the England is left to go hungry at lunchtime."

The Food Foundation has spoken to headteachers and school staff across England who are joining the call for free school meal eligibility to be extended.

Matt Perry, Headteacher, Halifax Academy, Halifax, said: "Sadiq Khan should be praised for his understanding and action that every child should have a right to a free school meal but this should not be seen as a privilege or benefit – this should be an essential right for all students.

"Once again students in the north and other areas are being left behind. When will politicians realise that children should not be going to school hungry no matter where they are in the country?"


Matthew Knight, Catering Manager, Hillstone School in Birmingham, said: "Whilst we welcome the further extension of FSM to all London primary school children, in Birmingham and the midlands thousands of children will go without a hot nutritious meal at lunch time by virtue of them being in year 3 and not living in London.

"We are hearing stories of hard working families having to choose between paying essential bills or paying for a school meal, we are noticing an increase in packed lunches and as the cost of living crisis really starts to bite after Christmas the quality of contents is deteriorating."


Tom Foster, Headteacher, Stainforth Kirton Lane Primary School in Doncaster said: "As a school leader, it is welcome news to hear that the London mayor has further extended Free School Meals, recognising the importance of food for all.

"Unfortunately, being limited only to London and not the rest of the country is further increasing inequity. All children and families deserve this vital support in such challenging times."


Please contact: Juliet Grant on 07929075489 or email


Shona Goudie, Policy and Advocacy Manager, The Food Foundation

Mark Game, CEO, The Bread and Butter Thing 

Twitter/X: @Food_Foundation 
Twitter/X: @teamtbbt
Instagram: teamtbbt

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The Food Foundation is a charity working to influence food policy and business practice, shaping a sustainable food system which makes healthy diets affordable and accessible for all. We work in partnership with researchers, campaigners, community bodies, industry, investors, government and citizens to galvanise the UK’s diverse agents of change, using surprising and inventive ideas to drive fundamental shifts in our food system. These efforts are based on the continual re-evaluation of opportunities for action, building and synthesising strong evidence, convening powerful coalitions, harnessing citizens’ voices and delivering impactful communications.        
Registered Charity Number 1187611.


The Bread and Butter Thing runs mobile affordable food clubs, supporting people in 120 low-income communities across north and central England. We enable our members to feed themselves and their families well with weekly access to fresh fruit and vegetables, cupboard staples, and fridge favourites at deeply discounted prices, in their local community hub. Our 70,000 members are as varied as the food we supply which comes from surplus stock from retailers, manufacturers and farmers. But food is just the start… Our mission is to unleash the power of food and ignite long-lasting change in struggling neighbourhoods across the UK. We build bridges out of food deserts, bringing nutritious, affordable food to the centre of the UK's most deprived communities and nourish them. We change lives. And we give voice to the people who use us - our members. We are the everyday - the bread and butter - baked into the heart of our communities.

Total who opened survey = 21,886
Total who answered survey = 2,917
Total who answered with a child or children in year 3 or above = 2,671
Survey dates: 16-17 Jan 2024. Method text survey
Survey Population: Members of TBBT food club

Megan Blake is an expert on household food security and works at the University of Sheffield. Through her research, she developed the Food Ladders framework to provide a practical understanding of how community-based interventions can support the transition of people and places from barely surviving to thriving. This framework is used by community organisations and local governments across the UK and beyond.

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