More than £1million is owed by families across Scotland who are unable to afford school meals for their children, according to a new study.
The report by children’s charity Aberlour, seen exclusively by the Guardian, reveals for the first time the scale of school meals debt and details an “alarming” rise in hidden hunger among Scottish schoolchildren.
Morag Treanor, author of the report and professor at Heriot-Watt University’s Social Policy, Housing and Equalities Research Institute, said the £1million figure was just the tip of the scale. the iceberg.
The total of £1,032,500 is mainly owed by pupils in the final years of primary school. Children in the first five years of primary school receive free universal school meals in Scotland.
Treanor said there were “unquantified levels of hidden hunger in secondary schools”.
During the research production process, young people told Aberlour that their friends who don’t qualify for free meals go hungry at lunchtime, while others deliberately save their school money. lunch to give back to their parents.
One boy explained: “In my group of friends, I would say about half of them can’t eat when we go out, so you see people buying food for their friends… We go to Greggs and , because I have like £3 or £3.50 to spend, I’ll get two yum yum and a sausage roll and give them the yum yum.
Further research has highlighted the stigma of high school students going to the school office to ask for a voucher that identifies them as having no money in their school lunch account. In some local authorities, issuing a voucher is discretionary or may limit the food choices available.
Treanor also identifies different debt collection schemes between councils, which it describes as “a hammer to crack a nut…some local authorities refer it to their debt collection services when it reaches £10”.
The report highlights how little the income thresholds for eligibility for free school meals have changed in 20 years, meaning that low-income working families “have been progressively excluded from the free school meals system over the years. years due to these thresholds not keeping pace,” she says.
It comes as former Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield, who chairs a year-long committee on young people’s lives, has called for free school meals to be extended to all families on Universal Credit.
The Aberlour report calls for the immediate implementation of the Scottish Government’s commitment to a universal right to free school meals for all primary classes, and the implementation of a similar right for secondary school pupils before the end of this legislature. It also calls on the Scottish Government to increase the free school meals threshold to £25,190 and to increase it each year in line with inflation.
“That’s the big ask,” said Martin Canavan, the charity’s head of policy and engagement. “The Scottish Government can do this through devolved powers. Far fewer families are entitled to free school meals now than they were 20 years ago when the thresholds were first introduced, despite the fact that over the past 10 years we have seen child poverty increase significantly.
Holyrood should see access to food as a child rights issue, adds Canavan. “Scotland is looking to incorporate the UNCRC [UN convention on the rights of the child]which is an important commitment that we absolutely support, but we must recognize that the problem of school hunger and the large number of children going hungry every day is in fact a violation of children’s human rights.
“Considering universal provision would be a way to ensure that all children have the right to eat and be fed.”