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Free meals campaign serves up holiday helpings for poorest pupils

For most pupils the summer holidays are a chance to top up on ice cream and other treats. But for those from the poorest homes it can mean the loss of their only proper meal every day and weeks of hunger.

Now an initiative aims to feed these children who will miss out on food during the long break because they claim free school meals (FSM).

Organisers of the "Lunch" campaign hope to encourage community groups around England to set up temporary canteens for pupils during the six-week holiday.

The schemes are modelled on similar initiatives in the US and come as the Government reports an increase in the number of children in England entitled to FSM.

The schemes will be run with the support of local schools, which have spread the word to parents about the food on offer. Those providing the meals are also trying to enlist the support of major children's charities including Barnardo's and Save the Children, as well as MPs.

One project at Oakley Vale, Corby, began last week as schools broke up. Another canteen in Hightown, Luton, will start on 15 August.

Food will be paid for by donations and the venues and equipment have been loaned.

Nik Stevenson, a local church minister who runs the Corby project, says his scheme will provide children with a main hot meal and snacks such as fruit and flapjacks. He said he needs about #163;30 to feed each child during the holidays and has asked members of the local community to sponsor the project.

The pupils who will benefit are from Oakley Vale Primary, where 7.8 per cent of children are entitled to FSM.

Mr Stevenson said: "These children get a hot lunch at school, but during the long holidays parents struggle. I know there are quite a few children who have to fend for themselves during the day.

"The church used to feed poorer children, now we've come full circle. This is what we should be doing."

Mr Stevenson has also contacted local supermarkets to ask them to offer discounted food.

Following these pilot projects, organisers will produce a guide for anyone who wants to get involved in the future.

Rachel Warwick, a youth worker who came up with idea for the Lunch campaign, said: "In America poorer children get food in the holidays. This is funded by the government and run by churches and community groups. We hope help can also start to be given to children in England.

"It's very early days, but we hope to put together a model which groups around the country can use if they want to run their own scheme. This will include menus and sample letters which can be sent to parents.

"Six weeks is a long time for poorer families to struggle to find food for their children. It means parents can go even further into debt. All of us got involved because we have a real sense someone had to do something."

Neera Sharma, assistant director of policy and research at Barnardo's, said: "Free school meals are a lifeline for many of the families living on low income that Barnardo's works with and the loss of them during school holidays can mean severe hardship.

"For families living on (the breadline), the additional pressure of providing extra meals means little chance of summertime treats such as going on trips or taking part in activities that most children take for granted."

FREE SCHOOL MEALS

Rise in numbers

Across the board, English education is witnessing an increase in the number of pupils claiming free school meals (FSM).

In nursery and state-funded primaries, 19.2 per cent of pupils are eligible for and claiming FSM, up from 18.5 per cent in 2010.

In secondaries 15.9 per cent of pupils are eligible for and claiming FSM, an increase from 15.4 per cent in 2010.

In special schools 36.5 per cent of children are eligible for and claiming free meals, an increase from 34.9 per cent in 2010.

In pupil referral units, the figure is 34.6 per cent, up from 33.3 per cent in 2010.

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