Free school meals for low-income families have long been a safety net ensuring kids get at least one nutritious meal a day when their circumstances might otherwise make that difficult.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that in this economic climate the number of pupils claiming free school meals is on the rise according to a survey of education staff from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). Teachers surveyed believe this rise is a direct result of more parents being made redundant because of the recession.
More than three quarters of staff (76%) think their school or college provides sufficient information to help parents apply for FSM, such as sending letters home to parents, although some did express the opinion that schools push this because they get additional funding – a pupil premium – for each pupil receiving free meals.
But for families who do pay for school meals, the survey also found that costs have risen. Sixty-two per cent of staff surveyed said the cost of school dinners had gone up in this academic year. Of these, 82 per cent said the rise had been less than 50p.
But a 50p-a-day rise over a school year is the equivalent of £95 which is not insubstantial, particularly for parents with more than one school age child. Sixty per cent of teachers said school meals were good value for money but around a third thought they weren’t.
A common concern raised was that the quantity of food offered in the school dinner was not sufficient or that kitchens ran out of food before all the children had been served.
Some teachers were concerned that by the afternoon children are hungry again, especially when compared with kids taking in packed lunches.
Although three-quarters said that they believe the meals served in their school or college are of a healthy standard, almost a fifth disagreed with this.
One secondary school teacher said: "There seems to be a lot of carbohydrates on offer each day. There are usually chips, pasta and rice available, while vegetables and salad don't seem to be on offer. As the meals are cooked in-house, the choice is limited to what our cook is able to make in large quantities."
Concern was also raised among staff at the different standards between academies and other schools.
Eighty-two per cent of respondents felt that new academies should abide by compulsory nutritional standards, which maintained schools already have to do.
The ATL's general secretary Mary Bousted said: "Teachers are raising issues about the quantity of the food that children get, about the choice and the quality. Some teachers are saying that children don't get enough food.
"I think it's absolutely the case that children are going hungry and we all know what hunger does to young people's ability to learn."