New research, commissioned by Aberlour’s Children’s Charity, outlined the extent of the free school meal debt and highlights a worrying increase in hidden hunger amongst Scottish pupils as parents and guardians struggle to keep up with the rising cost of living.
The total debt owed by struggling families in their final years of primary school (P6-7) is £1,032,500 as all younger children are eligible for universal free school meals.
The research, conducted by Professor Morag Treanor from Heriot-Watt University’s Institute of Social Policy, Housing and Equalities Research, has called for immediate action to prevent more children falling into poverty.
The income threshold for free school meal eligibility has barely increased since free school meals were first introduced – some 20 years ago.
Low income families are gradually being excluded and far fewer children are eligible for free school meals today than two decades ago, the research suggests.
And evidence suggests that food hunger is hard to quantify in secondary school as pupils choose to go hungry than facing the stigma and shame of getting the school meal account into debt.
Now Martin Canavan, head of policy and participation at Aberlour, has urged the Scottish Government to maximise eligibility for free school meals for low income working families “with immediate effect”.
He said: “We believe in a country as rich as Scotland no child should ever go hungry. We’re very concerned about hidden school hunger and believe there are likely significant numbers of children going hungry in school across Scotland.
“In the last 10 years we’ve seen child poverty rise significantly yet far fewer families are eligible for free school meals now than they were when the thresholds were introduced 20 years ago.
“The issue of school hunger and significant number of children going hungry every single day means we are failing as a country to protects children’s human rights – specifically the right to food.
“We are calling on Scottish Government to maximise eligibility for free school meals for low income working families with immediate effect.
“This will ensure more families receive this entitlement, reduce financial hardship, help end school meal debt and reduce the likelihood of hunger in schools.”
The research also highlighted inconsistencies between how local authorities recover the debt, with some children being denied access to school meals and debt being carried over from primary to secondary schools.
Professor Treanor said: “The debt highlighted through our research is, we believe, just the tip of the iceberg as the number of families struggling to pay for a school meal in Scotland continues to soar.
“We have unquantified levels of hidden hunger in secondary schools. This impact of children going hungry has a catastrophic impact on their health, wellbeing and educational attainment.”
While the Scottish Government’s commitment to expand free school meal provision has been welcomed, Professor Treanor said “immediate action” is necessary due to the rising cost-of-living crisis.