The government is to increase the funding rate for universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) by just 7p a pupil, it was announced on Tuesday, a move immediately branded “inadequate” by the sector.
Following an outcry over the government’s new food strategy, which did not include the hoped-for expansion of free school meals, the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, announced that funding for free school meals for all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2 would go up from £2.34 to £2.41 a meal.
The uplift, which marks an £18m investment by the government, will be backdated to 1 April and full allocations will be published later this month. It is only the second increase since the policy was first introduced in 2014, and exceeds the first which was just 4p.
Making the announcement, Zahawi acknowledged the rising cost of living: “We are increasing our funding for universal infant free school meals because we know that more can be done in the face of rising costs.”
Campaigners and those working in the school catering sector, however, said the increase did not go nearly far enough. At just under 3%, it falls way short of inflation and will apply only to the youngest children in the school system in England.
“This government is once again asking schools and providers to do more with less. As costs soar, funding of just 7p extra a meal will do little to ensure children are getting a healthy, balanced meal,” said the shadow schools minister, Stephen Morgan.
Kate Anstey, head of the cost of the school day project at the Child Poverty Action Group, said: “Nobody is going to turn down today’s offers of increased support with meals, but they’re just tweaks and won’t make the kind of difference that kids need to see.”
Zoe McIntyre, project manager at the Food Foundation, said: “This small increase in funding may alleviate some of the pressures of rising prices, staff shortages and supply chain problems suffered by school caterers, but it only applies to universal free school meals and is not in line with inflation.”
James Bowen, director of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers, said it was not enough to cover the increased costs schools are facing. “In the current climate, £2.41 will not stretch very far and caterers will still be left facing difficult decisions about what they can provide.”
LACA, the body representing school food caterers, added: “Whilst all increases to funding for UIFSM are welcome, caterers are experiencing average food price increases of 20% which is likely to get worse in the coming months. Today’s increase of 2.9% is therefore inadequate.”
Zahawi also chaired a roundtable with supermarkets and sport organisations as “a call to arms” to work together to provide more support for the government’s holiday activities and food programme for disadvantaged children.
Morgan commented: “Ministers cannot outsource the twin problems of rising holiday childcare costs and children going hungry to supermarkets and charities. The generosity of businesses and the public simply shines a light on the government’s inaction, hoping others will pick up the pieces once again.”