Nearly 1 in 5 children now claim Free School Meals as Covid hardship bites

A scheme to provide free school meals for children in the UK has been rolled out by the government.

More children are now claiming Free School Meals in Suffolk. Stock photo taken before the pandemic - Credit: Getty Images/Hemera

Almost one in five Suffolk children are now claiming Free School Meals - as thousands more families face hardship due to the coronavirus crisis.

And some campaigners have warned the latest figures are just the tip of the iceberg, with many others struggling to make ends meet and some predicting the economic fallout will worsen.

Figures in a report published ahead of a full Suffolk County Council meeting this week reveal that 19,500 children are currently eligible for Free School Meals.

Mary Evans, the council's cabinet member for children's services, education and skills, said that represents "almost 20% of the total school age population".

The number has risen sharply, with 17,500 receiving Free School Meals in Suffolk in October 2020 - compared to 14,400 children a year earlier.

Mrs Evans said in her report that there were plans to ensure these children received support over the upcoming Easter school holidays.

She attributed the rise to the Covid crisis and said it mirrored the rising rate of people claiming Universal Credit.

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“It gives you a real insight into the increase of people on furlough,” she said.

“That’s why the government support has stepped up, and why we’ve stepped up what we can do to help.”

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt said the figures were "sadly no great surprise", adding: "Many people's livelihoods have really been knocked off course."

However, he said: "I'm glad support is there through things like the government's Covid Winter Grant Scheme.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt said many people's livelihoods had been hit - but that support is there for those who are struggling - Credit: Archant

"During this pandemic, there are many constituents who have lost their lives or are mourning the loss of loved ones because of the health challenges of this virus.

"But there are also thousands of constituents who have been hit hard in other ways.

"Once we have moved beyond the restrictions, we can start to get the economy going again."

Mr Hunt also pledged to try and support families who contact him to appeal for help.

He praised community organisations such as Families In Need (FIND) in Ipswich, which runs a foodbank, for helping those struggling to pay bills.

He added that a foodbank-style Community Shelf run by Copleston High School and the Raedwald Trust group of schools had done a "brilliant" job of supporting families. 

Copleston principal Andy Green said: "We did the Community Shelf in the first lockdown, when things were difficult - but things are probably tougher now that many people have lost jobs and been on furlough for longer.

"Parents have had children at home for a long time and have had to spend more on food. Some families have got really high needs."

Jack Abbott, Labour's spokesman for children's services, education and skills on the county council, said: "We know that these numbers only tell half the story. 

"More than 50,000 children were living in poverty heading into the pandemic, yet thousands miss out on a Free School Meal as the eligibility criteria is too narrow.

Jack Abbott has written to Vicky Ford asking for free school meals to be provided to schoolchildren

Labour councillor Jack Abbott fears the figures 'only tell half the story' - Credit: Archant

"Many children are forced to skip breakfast or dinner. School holidays are a huge worry for many families as they try and find the money for an extra meal every day."

He added that Labour is looking the develop a food poverty action plan and promote existing Healthy Start vouchers 

"There are a number of brilliant charities doing everything they can to support families in need," he said.

“But much greater action is needed nationally - a widening of the Free School Meals eligibility criteria, funding for school breakfast clubs and a consistent, accessible and permanent scheme for the school holidays.

"More broadly, decisive action to drive down the cost of living, deliver new employment and guarantee the Real Living Wage of £9.50 an hour is all essential.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that hunger and poverty is inevitable. If there is the political will, we can change the lives of millions of children and their families in this country. We must.”

Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dr Dan Poulter added: "The Covid pandemic has meant that many people have lost their jobs and others, whilst still in employment, remain on reduced wages on the furlough scheme.

Dr Dan Poulter MP has defended care home staff after they were blamed by the Suffolk public for coronavirus outbreaks.

Dr Dan Poulter said the Free School Meal figures were a 'reminder of the impact the last year has had on the finances of many families in our area' - Credit: Archant

"Whilst it is good to see the children from families that are struggling during the pandemic are receiving extra help through the Free School Meals programme, this is a reminder of the impact the last year has had on the finances of many families in our area.

"Unfortunately, there is no overnight solution - but as the successful vaccine roll-out continues and infection rates together with hospital admissions fall, it is important that national focus and planning begins to shift towards how to help struggling family finances by supporting people back into work and the gradual reopening of the Suffolk economy."

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