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£1m school meal debt owed by families ‘could worsen with cost-of-living crisis’

Some pupils are choosing to go hungry to avoid the shame of school meal debt, experts said (Chris Radburn/PA)
Some pupils are choosing to go hungry to avoid the shame of school meal debt, experts said (Chris Radburn/PA)

More than £1 million owed in school meal debt is just the “tip of the iceberg” as thousands of families in Scotland struggle with food hunger, experts have said.

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.

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.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Cost of living rises are putting a huge strain on some families and they are facing unforeseen challenges.

“Pupils in primary one to five at publicly funded schools already benefit from universal free school lunches during term time, as well as eligible pupils within other age groups, saving families on average £400 per child per year.

“We will continue to work with our partners in local authorities to plan for the expansion of free school meal provision.

“Councils have the power to make discretionary offers of free school meals to families, where they are experiencing financial hardship due to exceptional circumstances, who do not meet the regular eligibility criteria.

“We would also urge local authorities to do all they can to resolve any payment issues.”

In March, Scottish Greens education spokesman Ross Greer urged councils to write off the debt which is causing “embarrassment” for pupils.

He added: “Children can’t get a good education if they’re hungry at school. Most councils will rightly ensure every pupil has a meal at lunchtime, even if they don’t have the money to cover it, but these figures make it clear that debts are being chased from families who simply can’t pay.

“With the cost-of-living crisis putting huge pressure on family finances, this is the right time to write off all outstanding school meal debt.”