The Stigma of Free School Meals (FSMs)

Categories: News


In your mind, picture a classroom filled with 30 pupils. Of those 30 pupils, approximately 8 of them will be eligible for Free School Meals (FSMs). However, between 3 and 4 of the students will miss out, despite coming from low-income backgrounds that would make them eligible for FSMs. Why? While an overly restrictive means test bears the majority of responsibility; another, less quantifiable factor warrants mentioning: stigma.

The stigma can come from their fellow students; who’ll observe FSM recipients paying for their lunch with a voucher, marking them out as different and leaving them feeling vulnerable. But FSM stigma can also emanate from parents; who’ll spend money they don’t have on conventional school lunches for their children, so both they and their children won’t suffer the judgement of other parents while on the school run. In fact, the stigma surrounding FSMs can be so acute that students would rather go hungry than collect their FSM.

Beyond stigma, FSMs are beset with other problems, despite almost universal agreement that FSMs are imperative to a child’s development and wellbeing. On May 30th this year, a joint letter penned by over a million teachers, support staff, school governors and trustees was delivered to the (then) Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, (then) Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi and (then) Exchequer Secretary, Helen Whately, to underline the importance of FSMs during an unprecedented cost of living crisis.

The most recent analysis by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) showed that poverty is far more entrenched in British society than people often realise. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019-20; there were 3.9 million children living in poverty, which constituted 27% of all children living in the UK. 49% of children living in single parent families were in poverty; owing to gender inequality in employment and pay, as well as rising childcare costs. The children of minority ethnic groups have higher chances of living in poverty, with 46% of them living in poverty, compared to 26% of children from white families. Contrary to popular belief, being in work doesn’t guarantee a path out of poverty; especially as 75% of children growing up in poverty live in households where at least one person is employed.

With poverty being this endemic and FSM provision lagging behind; CPAG, as well as other organisations, are calling for the government to rescind the restrictive FSM means testing process. In doing so, by mirroring the example set by Scotland and Wales, it would bring FSMs closer to universal provision in the UK; ensuring that every child who requires an FSM can get one.

“We know families are being left to make impossible decisions, with many parents simply unable to afford lunches but desperately not wanting their children to go without. Food is vital to children’s health, wellbeing and learning, and the government cannot continue to stand by while children in poverty go hungry at lunchtime. No other part of the school day is means-tested in this way – universal free school meals should simply be a fundamental part of going to school.”

– Kate Anstey, Head of the UK Cost of the School Day programme at CPAG


Summer Holiday FSM Provision Cut to £1.66

In 2020, the provision of FSMs during school holidays gained nationwide attention when Manchester United player Marcus Rashford joined forces with FareShare to provide millions of meals for children during the first Covid-19 lockdown. However, following a slew of local authority budget slashing last month, children in the UK are facing a postcode lottery.

In 2022, parents of FSM-eligible children have seen the value of the vouchers given to them by their council cut in half, while others have seen the value of their FSM provision cut to as little as £1.66. In Worcestershire, the county council has only issued families with vouchers for only two weeks of the summer holidays, amounting to £30.

As an alternative; Worcestershire County Council, like many other local councils, is funding the Holiday Activity and Food (HAF) programme, which give free places to FSM-eligible children. However, due to where HAF sites are situated, some parents have criticised the initiative, saying they cannot afford the fuel or public transport fee to get to a HAF site. Another issue with HAF is that whereas government guidance states that the programme must provide at least one meal a day, which meal that is remains HAF’s discretion; meaning it could be either breakfast, lunch or dinner. Similarly, in 2021, Birmingham City Council provided a month’s worth of FSM vouchers over the summer holidays that was worth £60; or £25 for children up to the age of five. The aforementioned provision wasn’t nearly enough; although this year, Birmingham City Council has done away with FSM vouchers altogether, electing to only offer HAF placements instead.

In Kent, families will get one £50 voucher to see them through the entire summer holiday period. Divided up over those six weeks; Kent’s FSM provision comes to just £8.33 a week, or £1.66 a day. This is a near 50% reduction on the provision provided last year by the county, and will ensure that those who are worse off will suffer the most from the loss of the FSM provision.

These budgetary cutbacks are in stark contrast to both Wales and Scotland, where FSM provision is far more representative of what’s needed, especially during a cost of living crisis. For the school summer holiday in Wales; all eligible children will be entitled to a daily FSM provision of £3.90, which is £19.50 a week and totals £117 for the entirety of the summer break. Most importantly, the Welsh FSM provision is exactly the same amount that eligible children received in the same period in 2021.

Across Scotland, there is more variation in FSM provision. While the average value of an FSM is £2.71 a day; with Midlothian allocating £2.13 per student, while Dumfries and Galloway provide £4 for their FSMs. Both the Scottish and Welsh FSM allocations dwarf those set by Westminster, in both value and eligibility.

Following the announcement of these cuts, Barbra Crowther, a spokeswoman for Sustain, an alliance of organisations and communities that work to implement sustainable food and agricultural techniques; was quoted,

“As the cost of living crisis bites, and families with children struggle to make ends meet, teachers and education leaders, food charities and school catering bodies, anti-poverty organisations are all calling for [FSM] programmes to be expanded so that all children in poverty can access them. The Government should be listening to these voices now, not waiting for another football star to shame them into action once again.”

In an attempt to limit the suffering caused by soaring energy costs and the reduction in FSM provision over the summer holidays, the government announced the Household Support Fund (HSF). Originally set to conclude in March 2022, the HSF will run until September 2022 and will offer approximately £200, distributed by local authorities, to those who are eligible for funding.

However, since the HSF’s inception, it has been beset by issues. Vulnerable people have routinely struggled to access the fund as local councils struggle to find a workable payment system, leaving some would-be beneficiaries to describe the application process as Kafkaesque’.

Nicola, a Universal Credit beneficiary interviewed in the Guardian, said,

‘In Westminster borough, you have to apply to the Citizens Advice Bureau for household support fund vouchers. During the first cycle, the application process was cumbersome, but you could self-refer and even apply without a national insurance number. By the second round, it had got completely bogged down in administrative hurdles. Now, there isn’t even a form to fill in, you have to phone Citizens Advice or be referred by a food bank or charity.

You have to jump through so many hoops and you’re exhausting yourself to get these tiny payments because you’re desperate. It took eight or nine weeks to get the vouchers […] Westminster borough only issues Sainsbury’s vouchers, which do not help with electricity or gas bills, and you can’t buy infant formula […] Then there were lots of cases where Sainsbury’s staff didn’t recognise the vouchers people brought into stores, and some people just don’t have the social capital to argue their case. These many layers of bureaucracy; it’s ideological, to make it harder for people.’


800,000 Hungry but Ineligible Children

It isn’t just the lack of FSM provision that’s been the subject of so much criticism, but also its extremely restrictive eligibility criteria. The harsh reality of restrictive FSM eligibility is that approximately 800,000 children will miss out.

So what is the criteria? Across England and Wales, to be eligible for an FSM, a household must be earning less than £7,400; that’s after tax and not including any other benefits the household may be collecting. This absurdly meagre income threshold creates an financial cliff edge that stifles the upward economic mobility of vulnerable people by appearing indistinguishable from a poverty trap.

Above: The Children’s Society (TCS)/Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG): Free School Meals Poverty Trap (2018) ©

The TCS/CPAG diagram above illustrates the scale of the problem. A family living in poverty with three children earning a household income just under the £7,400 limit will lose their FSM provision, worth £1,311 annually, if they receive a meagre pay rise or work just one extra hour. To ‘earn back’ what they’ve lost from their FSM provision, they would need to have their wages increased by £3,543, or 48%. Due to the 55% Universal Credit earnings taper, the rate at which Universal Credit payments are reduced as earnings increase; to retain their FSM provision, the earner in this family would be limited to working just 6.5 hours a week at the £9.10 per hour National Living Wage.

In Scotland, the income threshold is £7,320; in Northern Island, it’s £14,000. While these income limits disqualify vulnerable people by being far too low, other aspects of FSM eligibility seem unnecessarily strict in excluding people who desperately need them.

When applying for FSMs, there are several other conditions which if not met, or surpassed; could preclude a vulnerable household’s eligibility. In England and Wales, if a lone parent’s working hours increase from 15 to 17 hours a week, they’re ineligible. If one or more parents are receiving other certain types of benefits, such as Working Tax Credit, they’re ineligible. Due to how the FSM income limits were calculated in 2018 and before, parents could discover that whereas one of their children is eligible for FSMs, the other is ineligible.

‘Howie P.’, a single parent interviewed by CPAG, gave an account of the impact of restrictive FSM eligibility,

“We have no FSM support, this causes problems as we are a low-income family. I am a single parent and self-employed with a super precarious and changeable income, but receipt of working tax credit automatically means we don’t qualify. It’s been like this for years. In school, this means that my children are not flagged up as struggling as many schools use FSMs as a measure of family circumstances.”


The Kids Will Have Their Say

While the distress FSM eligibility causes parents is well documented, the observations and opinions of the children receiving FSMs are often underreported. Sadly, by far the most prevailing mindset among both children and parents alike was stigma.

In an IRIS blog, Jocelyn Levy helps illustrate the prevailing attitudes to FSMs from children. It’s an inescapable truth that children will often marginalise and pick on those they feel are vulnerable or different, and this extends to FSMs. In particular, FSM vouchers have been heavily criticised by FSM-eligible children as it does a painfully good job of making children feel different from their peers. In 2011, members of the Welsh Assembly discovered that some secondary school children forgo their FSM entirely to avoid the humiliation of their peers. To prevent further bullying, parents will instead make their children packed lunches they cannot afford, which in the long run compounds their economic difficulties.

In 2012, the British Youth Council (BYC) and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) conducted an online survey of 1,026 young people to get their thoughts on FSMs.

Figure 1 (Above): British Youth Council (BYC)/Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG): ‘Going Hungry: Young People’s Experiences of Free School Meals’

Figure 2 (Above): British Youth Council (BYC)/Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG): ‘Going Hungry: Young People’s Experiences of Free School Meals’

Figure 3 (Above): British Youth Council (BYC)/Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG): ‘Going Hungry: Young People’s Experiences of Free School Meals’

These observations from FSM-eligible children are heart breaking. Not just because of the stigma they receive, but also the multi-layered issues involved with FSM provision. BYC/CPAG research has discovered that some schools had chosen to remove FSM vouchers because of their inherit stigma, and instead opted for a cash ‘allowance’ for children to purchase an FSM. While sound in principle, the eligible children noted that the allowance wasn’t sufficient to purchase a complete meal; often forcing children to forgo having a drink with their lunch. If a child was to accidentally overspend on their FSM allowance, they would either have to give either the food or the money back, while in full view of their classmates, robbing them of their anonymity. Alternatively, they would be sent to detention to return the overspend, which would also expose them as an FSM recipient.

The children surveyed were very conscious of their anonymity as an FSM recipient, and often felt that not enough was being done by their respective schools to respect that; especially in the methods adopted by schools to deliver FSMs to eligible children. One in four of the children surveyed said that their school’s chosen FSM delivery system failed to protect their identity. While no delivery system was deemed ‘perfect’ by FSM-eligible children, their confidentiality appears to be better protected when schools utilised an electronic or card-based system. However, the research undertaken by BYC/CPAG shows that, despite their inadequacies, some form of voucher or ticking off a child’s name on a separate list are still the most common FSM delivery methods.

Perhaps the most disheartening feedback from FSM-eligible children was that the lines for FSMs were so long that they wouldn’t get any lunch, or if they did manage to queue up, there wouldn’t be enough time left in their lunch break to actually sit down with their friends and eat. In both cases, the fact that there were so many children claiming FSMs that there’s neither time to distribute them, nor for the kids to eat them; gives an indication of just how widespread this form of poverty is in British schools.

Despite this, there is some hope. Out of all the children surveyed, it was only a small minority of them who said that FSM stigma was a persistent and real issue. A variety of attitudes; from having no ill will towards their FSM-eligible classmates, to acknowledging that the school itself was located in a deprived area, thus making individual poverty more common and less of a talking point among children.


Food for Thought

With there being so many prominent issues with both the provision and implementation of FSMs, a raft of changes are needed. Some schools have already taken measures to improve their FSMs and their associated stigma. These measures include offering a free breakfast club to provide all pupils with a simple meal. This both ensures children get the nutrition they need, while providing it to every child means that there’s no stigma surrounding the children who rely on the breakfast club for their morning meal.

Some schools have introduced procedures to assist the pupils of economically vulnerable families and prevent them from having to depend on FSMs in the first place. Procedures such as relevant equipment being provided, subsidised school trips and non-uniform days that didn’t require a donation to the school have all been utilised to give low income pupils a subtle helping hand.

During the lockdowns, some schools utilised cash-first systems to alleviate some of the hardships experienced. By opting for cash payments instead of vouchers or parcels, it conceals any stigma by not insisting that pupils queue in different lines or interact with different staff members to get their lunch. This cash-first approached also gave recipients a degree of freedom in allowing them to select what food they wanted to buy, a clear advantage to the fixed menu of an FSM.

In the Child Poverty Action Group’s (CPAG) report, ‘Fixing Lunch: The Case for Expanding the Provision of FSMs’; CPAG suggests several recommendations to improve FSMs. First of which, would be to reinstate the £20 Universal Credit uplift, which was cut last year, to provide wide-reaching assistance during the on-going cost of living crisis. CPAG makes the case for broadening FSM eligibility to include every family on Universal Credit, or equivalent benefits, as well as all families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF). Emulating the model of the Scottish Government, CPAG wants to see FSMs made available to all primary school children in the UK. All of this ties into CPAG’s long term goal of seeing FSM provision cover every child in the UK.

Currently, the UK is the world’s sixth wealthiest nation, yet paradoxically; 14.5 million people live in poverty and ‘warm banks’ are being discussed as temporary, winter-time solution to the cost of living crisis. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss vowed she would deal with the impending energy crisis within one week of taking office. Although during the Conservative leadership contest, she rejected what she referred to as ‘handouts’ to solve the cost of living crisis; then u-turned, and announced a scheme to freeze energy bills at £2,500 for two years, then reduced the freeze to one year. Three days later, Truss resigned as Prime Minister. At the time of writing, the Conservatives are holding another leadership contest between Rishi Sunak and Penny Morduant; both of whom voted against Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend FSM provision to include the 2020 school summer holidays.

Currently, some schools in the most deprived areas of the UK have had to contend with spending cuts on FSMs totalling more than £1 million in real terms. As a direct result, some schools have had to cut costs by replacing cooked meals with sandwiches for vulnerable pupils. With winter fast approaching, the impetus will be on yet another new cabinet to ensure that their most vulnerable constituents have more to look forward to at lunchtime than a sandwich.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *