The mayor of London Sadiq Khan has extended funding for universal primary free school meals into the next academic year.
While schools will receive 35p extra per meal next year, taking the total to £3 a meal, campaigners have warned provision for the next two terms remains under-funded by the scheme.
Last February, Labour mayor Khan announced he would spend £130 million providing free school meals to junior pupils in the 2023-24 academic year. Infants already receive free meals under a central government scheme.
A further £5 million was also allocated to help with “extraordinary costs associated with implementation”.
But Schools Week analysis has found half of London boroughs face funding shortfalls for the scheme, with funding potentially £33 million short of what is needed because actual meal costs outstrip the cash provided.
This week’s announcement that the support will be extended into 2024-25 appears to acknowledge increasing costs, raising the per-meal funding rate from £2.65 to £3 and the total funding allocated to £140 million.
However, in 2022, the National Education Union estimated the true cost to a school of providing a hot meal for a primary pupil, once rising costs are factored-in, was £3.30.
‘Schools left out of pocket’
Andy Jolley, a school food campaigner, warned schools would still be left short for the rest of this year.
“Whilst the increase is to be welcomed, the inflationary pressures around school meals have been building for well over a year. Meal quality will suffer and schools will be left out of pocket as wages and food prices continue to rise.”
Schools Week revealed last year how schools faced having to replace expensive kitchen equipment from their own budgets to cope with the increase in demand for meals.
This week’s announcement also offers no certainty of future funding for the scheme beyond next academic year. Khan faces re-election in May this year.
The mayor said delivering free school meals “has been one of my proudest moments as mayor as I have seen the difference it has made to the children receiving them and to their families”.
“I am thrilled to announce my intention to extend this lifeline for families for yet another year.”
Khan said he knew from “personal experience what a difference these meals can make and it’s been fantastic to hear from teachers how much better children are performing and also how much parents and their children have benefited”.
“Sadly Londoners continue to struggle with the cost-of-living crisis and with the government failing to step forward to deliver these meals, we have worked hard to find the money to provide this vital funding for the next academic year.”