Children are going hungry because free school meals are not offered to many whose parents are on a low income, a new study suggests.
A report for the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) also indicates that even when youngsters receive free school meals, these might not be enough for their needs.
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Researchers at University College London (UCL) studied low-income families in London and a south-east seaside town. Some children said there were restrictions on what was available for a free school meal, and that they felt embarrassed at not having the same options as other pupils.
"Radical change is needed," the report's co-author, Rebecca O'Connell, said. "Food poverty and its effects on children's and young people's physical and emotional wellbeing is a matter of grave concern."
Call for universal free school meals
The researchers found that around one in four children went hungry at times, despite sacrifices being made by their parents in terms of what they ate.
Half of parents in the study did not eat enough food, skipped meals or used food banks, according to the report.
Half of teenagers surveyed said they did not have money to spend on food with their friends.
"Children who are hungry cannot learn as well as they might be able to," Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said. "Free school meals at least guarantee that children going hungry at home get one nutritious meal a day during term time. We have to do all that we can to extend that entitlement to every child that is going hungry, and we must fix the problems in society that cause families to fall into the poverty trap.
"Currently one in ten eligible children miss out on their free school meals entitlement. NAHT has long called for children to be automatically enrolled to receive free school meals, using the information councils already hold about their family situation. This would take away the barrier of stigma for parents.”
CPAG chief executive Alison Garnham said: "The young people in this study make the case for universal free school meals more powerfully than anyone else could.
"Their hunger, their shame, their sense of being cut off from learning and social opportunities – all because parents can't afford enough food – are appalling in a society that believes every child matters.
"Universal free school meals should be part of the solution, but wider government action is needed to eradicate the poverty that underlies children's hunger. As a minimum, free school meals should be restored for all families on Universal Credit."
A government spokesman said: "Tackling poverty will always be a priority for this government.
"We're supporting over one million of the country's most disadvantaged children through free school meals and we continue to spend £95 billion a year on working-age benefits to ensure every child has the best start in life."
The research was carried out among 45 low-income families.