Article 06.08.2021

Research on support for families eligible for free school meals in the East of England during the pandemic

An ARC EoE study has found that many families with school-aged children reported difficulties in accessing food during the pandemic.

With schools now about to close for the summer holidays, some families who are eligible for free school meals during term time may experience difficulties in providing nutritious meals for their children over the next few weeks as the financial effects of the pandemic continue to affect some people’s livelihoods.

The research conducted by the University of Hertfordshire, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) East of England, spoke with study participants between May 2020 and March 2021 to look at how people were managing with access to food and how they were being supported locally as the pandemic evolved.

The study found more support is needed to help families who are eligible for free school meals to navigate the benefits system, especially for those new to the benefits system or recently unemployed. The number of children eligible for free school meals has grown significantly over the past 12 months, from 1.44 million children in January 2020 to 1.74 million children in January 2021.

“The extension of the government’s school holiday activities and food programme across the country is a welcome scheme of support for families who might be struggling to meet food costs this summer. Children will be provided with meals and activities during the summer break."

Professor Wendy Wills, ARC EoE Theme Lead - Prevention and Early Detection in Health and Social Care

Wendy added: “From speaking with parents across the East of England, we found the previous school holiday voucher scheme restricted food choices and had been difficult for many families to access, as they couldn’t be used online in a time when families were trying to restrict visits to the shops. Our research found families would benefit from a cash top-up to their Child Benefit or Universal Credit payments as a more flexible way of buying food and making the best choices for their individual needs, if access to free school meals becomes an issue again in the future.”

“It’s short sighted of the government to plan to cut the £20 uplift to Universal Credit that has been paid to the lowest waged during the pandemic, when employment is still so uncertain for many people. We know that low waged workers are those who struggle to feed their families so this removal of the uplift will directly impact on the food available for children.”

The study featured in a BBC Look East (West) report on 28 July 2021, which included an interview with Professor Wendy Wills.

Read more about this research here