Image by: Becker-Hsp – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
“The first issue that I had in Year 3 was that I couldn’t get any school meals. It was very tough and hard because everyone was showing off their food—‘Oh look I got this’—and I didn’t have anything [to eat]. It made me feel really different. I couldn’t concentrate in my learning—somehow I kind of felt like sleeping”
Why destitute migrant children are left out at lunch
Our friends at NELMA, North East London Migrant Action, are launching a new initiative to help families who are struggling with poverty and missing out on the free school meals safety net.
Free school meals for poor children are a cornerstone of Britain’s beleaguered welfare state. The Education Act 1996 requires maintained schools, academies and free schools to provide free lunches to disadvantaged pupils aged between 5 and 16 years old, with amendments made in 2014 extending this provision to all children in reception, Year 1, and Year 2. After a decade of austerity and amid a startling spike in food poverty among young people, the continuing guarantee of a decent healthy lunch for children from low-income families looks on the surface like a rare reason to be cheerful.
Unfortunately the idea that all children in the UK who need them receive free school meals doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Some of the poorest children in Britain are unable to access this and other key welfare provisions, with a key factor in exclusion being the immigration status of parents.
[ Children in families with no recourse to public funds are not the only ones who fall through the cracks in statutory free school meals provision. Children in Roma and Irish Traveller families frequently miss out because parents don’t claim passporting benefits. Meanwhile, and as the Children’s Society has argued, up to a million children in poverty could soon miss out on free school meals as a result of changes to the rules around free school meals and universal credit.]
That this fact generally goes unmentioned in policy conversations about child poverty speaks volumes about the power of Britain’s border regime to render some of the most vulnerable members of our communities invisible.
Statutory free school meals entitlement depends on parental entitlement to certain welfare benefits. As a result, children in migrant families with no recourse to public funds are often unable to access the provision, even where their household income is less than that of families whose children do receive free school meals. The poorest migrant families, where parents have no right to work, sometime survive on less than £30 per person per week, with children in some cases going hungry at home. Yet the young people in such families are frequently prevented from eating school meals with their peers at school. In other cases, schools provide meals to children in NRPF families but continue to charge fees to destitute parents, causing them to rack up hundreds or even thousands of pounds worth of debt.
Nine-year-old Joel, who told us the story at the top of this blog, has lived in the UK all his life. He and his mum have just been granted leave to remain in the UK after a long battle with the Home Office and years of state-enforced destitution. Joel’s experience lays bare the contradictions embedded in the UK’s approach to child migrants. As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UK has made a commitment to ensuring the wellbeing of all children living here, regardless of their immigration status. Yet Britain’s restrictive and xenophobic immigration policy denies children like Joel their basic human rights to adequate food.
For schools struggling to make ends meet in a context of funding cuts and increasing need, this poses challenges. Recognising the importance of decent nutrition, some schools and local authorities provide free school meals on a discretionary basis to children who would otherwise be denied lunch. A few local authorities, such as Southwark, provide meals to all children of primary age. Yet there remains a lack of awareness among educators about immigration-related welfare exclusions and their effects on children’s wellbeing and educational outcomes.
We—as “migrants” and “citizens”, as children and parents, as schools and local authorities— can challenge the profiteering logic of austerity and the racism of the ‘hostile environment’. We absolutely must challenge a border regime that turns lunch into a luxury for some of the UK’s poorest children.
Join NELMA in our campaign demanding free school meals for all children, regardless of their immigration status, and for schools to be adequately funded so that they can provide this. See the NELMA website for more details on how you can support our campaign and follow our Twitter hashtags #lunchisnotaluxury and #leftoutatlunch.
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