The extension of free school meals to families via the new Covid Winter Grant Scheme will give much needed support to families on low incomes this Christmas. We support Marcus Rashford’s campaign to ensure that this is not a one-off response but the start of ongoing support over school holidays.

In this blog post we share new analysis from Policy in Practice that shows the financial impact of the school holidays on families in receipt of free school meals. Our analysis highlights the financial difficulties these families face when burdened with the extra cost of children’s meals that, in term time, are provided for by the government. We present several strategies the government could adopt to ensure that no family is in financial crisis as a result of the school holidays; this includes extending free school meals to all children from households in receipt of Universal Credit.

How the government has extended free school meals so far

Free school meals are a lifeline for many families. This support is currently available to children from households who are in receipt of means tested out-of-work benefits, or in receipt of Universal Credit with net earnings below £7,400 a year.

In response to the growing number of families experiencing holiday hunger, the Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford set up the Child Food Poverty Taskforce to highlight the importance of alleviating child food poverty and to put pressure on the government to act. In setting up the task force, Marcus Rashford said:

“4.2 million children were living in poverty in the UK prior to COVID-19 and this is expected to have risen; the Task Force stand together to offer these vulnerable children the platform they need to have their voices heard.”

On 6 November the government announced the Covid Winter Grant Scheme to ensure no child goes hungry over Christmas. This change in direction was welcomed by Marcus Rashford and others who supported his campaign. The scheme includes:

  • Funding of £170m to support children, families and the most vulnerable over winter; at least 80% of the funding is ring-fenced to support with food and bills and the fund is designed to cover up to March 2021
  • Expansion of the Holiday Activities and Food programme to cover Easter, Summer and Christmas in 2021
  • Increase in Healthy Start payments from £3.10 to £4.25 a week from April 2021

Who should pay? The real-life value of free school meals

For some families in receipt of welfare benefits providing food for their children is not straightforward. Austerity measures introduced by the previous government mean that some households cannot make ends meet. This is particularly true for people affected by measures introduced as part of welfare reform such as the benefit freeze, the benefit cap, the restriction in housing support, or the two-child limit.

In addition, it can cost low-income families in work almost three times as much as it would cost the government to provide a child’s meal. This is because Universal Credit is withdrawn at a rate of 63p for every £1 someone earns, over any work allowance. Therefore, for a parent to cover the cost of a meal that would cost the government £3, they would have to earn an additional £8.11 in order for their finances not to take a hit. We explored this further in our recent blog, Why it pays for the government to fund free school meals.

Within the current benefit rules, the government is not only asking parents to fork out additional money in school holidays when it is much harder to work extra hours due to childcare, but it is also making it more difficult for them to cover this cost. If it is the responsibility of the parent to ensure their child has enough food each day, then it is the responsibility of the government to ensure parents on low incomes have the means and opportunity to provide this. For those without barriers to work, working in the school holidays to earn enough to cover the higher meal cost to families may not be a feasible option.

The financial impact of the school holidays

By supporting children from low-income families with free meals during term time the government recognises both the importance of ensuring that children have enough to eat, and also that some families are struggling financially. In school holidays, which cover 11 weeks of the year, this support is withdrawn. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic no measures were in place to help parents with the extra financial burden.

Our new analysis examined the financial impact families face when covering the cost of meals that,  in term time, are provided by the government. The analysis used anonymised housing benefit and council tax data from 19 local authorities across England.

The analysis identified how many families would be in a cash shortfall due to this extra expense. In simple terms, a cash shortfall is when a family does not have enough income to cover all their expected costs such as rent, council tax, utility bills, groceries, essential clothing and travel. When essential costs like rent are prioritised the amount and quality of food a parent can buy for their children risks being compromised.

We found:

  • 20% of families (1 in 5) in receipt of free school meals would be unable to meet all their expected costs in school holidays without extra support
  • 3% of families on legacy benefits who get free school meals in term time, and can meet their costs, are pushed into cash shortfall in school holidays as a result of extra food costs. This figure rises to 4% for families on Universal Credit

Our analysis shows that up to 4% of families are pushed into cash shortfall without free school meals

Bigger families are hit harder by the lack of free school meals in holiday time

Our analysis shows that 7% more families on Universal Credit with three or more children who could cover their everyday costs in term time can’t do so in the school holidays. By comparison, 2% of families on Universal with just one or two children are unable to cope.

This may seem intuitive, more mouths to feed cost more money, yet the government has not addressed this in the Covid-19 support measures to date. The Universal Credit personal allowance was increased by £20 a week in April 2020, this amount was consistent for single people and parents, irrespective of the number of children they were expected to provide for with that extra money.

Bigger families need more support without free school meals yet this isn’t addressed in Covid-19 support to date

The increase in Universal Credit personal allowance and the increase in the Local Housing Allowance (the maximum support for private rented housing costs) introduced by the government in April 2020 are welcome. However, the effectiveness of these measures is limited by the lack of action in other areas. Two clear examples of this are:

1. Effect of the Benefit cap

The benefit cap remains at the same level as pre Coronavirus therefore even if personal allowances or housing allowances are increasing, the overall amount in benefits a person or family can receive, unless exempt from the cap, will remain the same. This will have a bigger impact on larger families, particularly those in rented accommodation.

Policy in Practice analysis for the Greater London Authority showed that the benefit cap risks restricting support to all tenants with children in London.

2. Effect of the two-child limit

Support for children in families who rely on welfare benefits is limited by the two-child limit policy. This policy means that families will not receive support for any third or subsequent child born on or after 6 April 2017. Read the evidence we gave to the Work and Pensions Select Committee on the impact of the two-child limit here.

The policy was designed to encourage low-income households to consider the cost of having further children. However, the recent pandemic has highlighted how many households that were previously able to provide for their children whilst in work, are now not able to do so because they have been hit by an income shock such as illness or redundancy. As these households only receive welfare support for the first two children, the cost of meeting meals in holiday time for unsupported children can be severely challenging.

Three ways that bigger families can be better supported

To help larger families Policy in Practice recommends:

  1. Ensuring free school meals are available during all school holiday periods with funding provided on a continuing basis
  2. Increasing or removing the benefit cap, particularly during the pandemic when households may not have the option to work
  3. Scrapping the 2-child limit, at least for as long as other Covid measures are in place

We also call for extending free school meals to all families on Universal Credit

In addition to measures to end holiday hunger, Marcus Rashford’s campaign also called for the extension of free school meals to all children whose family is in receipt of Universal Credit. Policy in Practice fully supports this call, having previously called for it too. This would have a direct positive impact on alleviating child food poverty and supporting the life chances of children from low-income households.

How local authorities can identify and help families with food insecurities

The government has responded to calls to end child food poverty through a one-off grant to provide relief over Christmas. The £170m Covid Winter Grant scheme will be distributed to councils in England to help them to provide free school meals and to support households with essential bills. The government states that “local councils understand which groups need support and are best placed to ensure appropriate holiday support is provided”.

Policy in Practice believes that a localised approach can be the most effective as councils hold the necessary data on low-income households to enable them to target this support to those households most in need. Leading local authorities use Policy in Practice’s Low Income Family Tracker (LIFT) to identify vulnerability and then target support to those families who are financially at risk.

Councils can use their administrative data to target take-up of both free school meals and Healthy Start payments, particularly since the value of these is due to rise by 25% from April 2021. By putting their data to good use in this way councils can make the most effective use of their funding and play their part in tackling child food poverty.

Find out more

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