In the latest Understanding Society blog, Jennie Parnham discusses her latest research and how it suggests the scheme may have failed to reach half of eligible children.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had wide-reaching consequences which have been felt throughout society. Arguably, one of the most critical impacts has been the economic effect on low-income families and their experience of food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined as being unable to access enough healthy food to stop hunger and was already high in the UK compared to other European countries. Evidence shows it has worsened during the pandemic. As food insecurity is associated with poor physical and mental health, this could have serious consequences for low-income families.
On 20 March 2020, UK schools closed to all but children of keyworkers and vulnerable children. As a result, children from low-income families who were eligible for free school meals were no longer provided a lunch by school, compounding the economic strain on already struggling families. The Government brought in substitute methods of providing free school meals to limit the impact for low-income children. In England, supermarket vouchers worth £15/week were introduced, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also used food parcels and bank transfers as a means of bridging the gap.
Substitute meal schemes had varying success, though, which sparked controversy. Reports of families not accessing vouchers or receiving inadequate food parcels were quickly picked up by the media. Famously, the campaign to continue free school meal access throughout the school holidays was championed by the footballer, Marcus Rashford. This high-profile campaign successfully caused a government U-turn resulting in free school meals being given in the Easter and Summer holidays – and a petition called for a debate in the House of Commons regarding the October half term and Winter holidays.
In a time when the economic consequences of COVID-19 are as prominent as the health consequences, it is important to make sure government support for the most vulnerable families is effective and consistent. We sought to explore the extent to which children eligible for free school meals were able to access some form of provision and whether this had any connection to their experience of food insecurity.
We used Wave 1 of the Understanding Society COVID-19 Survey, which asked participating households if their child was eligible for free school meals and if they had been able to access them (either at school or via a substitute such as a voucher). We identified 635 children who were eligible for free school meals in the sample. Using logistic regression, we tested how certain characteristics, such as school phase and ethnicity, explained their access to free school meals in April 2020. Secondarily, we explored if accessing free school meals was linked to the family’s use of food banks.
- Half of children eligible for free school meals could not access the scheme in April 2020.
- Children who attended school were almost six times more likely to get a free school meal than children who did not.
- Families of children who had a free school meal were more likely to use a food bank than families who could not.
Our results reveal that efforts to continue access to free school meals for low-income children during the COVID-19 lockdown were not effective. Higher access in children attending school shows that the replacement schemes, such as supermarket vouchers, were ineffective.
Implications for policy
There is mounting pressure on the Government to continue free school meal access throughout the winter, despite the Commons voting against the proposal. If this campaign is successful, it is imperative that the benefit is delivered through an effective scheme. Policy makers should review and respond to the issues highlighted in this study so that the free school meal vouchers are as effective and accessible as receiving a meal in school. Equally, if the government does not reverse its decision, local councils and community organisations which are promising to step in can act to better reach children in the target group.
Our finding that households who were able to access free school meals were more likely to use a food bank suggests that the current welfare schemes in the UK do not guarantee protection from food insecurity. Researchers have highlighted that the increasing dependency on food banks to alleviate food insecurity represents a failure of social security systems to protect the most vulnerable. This is a sign that our current welfare schemes are failing to protect and support vulnerable families.
This blog post was originally posted on the Understanding Society website.