York children on free school meals up to a third

THE number of children entitled to free school meals in York has jumped by a third since the start of the Covid pandemic – and is only set to increase.

There were 2,668 children claiming free school meals in January 2020, rising to 3,569 in January 2022.

When looking at secondary schools alone in York, the figure rose by 44 per cent.

Pauline Stuchfield, the council’s director of customer and communities, said numbers are expected to go up, especially this autumn when the fuel cap is again set to rise – leading to “more families going into poverty”.

On the increase over the past two years, Ms Stuchfield said: “There are two causal factors – one is Covid and the financial impact on families but also families realizing what they could claim and getting a lot more advice.”

The figures were highlighted as councilors discussed how best to support struggling families outside of term time.

During some lockdown periods, the government provided a national voucher scheme to fund food vouchers for children eligible for benefits-related free school meals.

But the council stepped in to fund vouchers during school holiday periods until Easter of this year. Funding this, however, now costs nearly £60,000 per week – at a time when council finances are under huge strain.

A cross-party task group of councilors has been looking at how to support the growing number of children who are claiming free school meals in future.

Coun Stephen Fenton said: “The Department for Education line is there is universal credit and that’s it. We disagree and we believe as a city we need to do something in addition to what the government requires us to do.”

Coun Bob Webb said: “I think it’s fair to say that we’re pussyfooting around the fact that we’ve got a ruthless government that has cut universal credit, sets up a system for people to fail and is enforcing poverty on huge swathes of population.”

The task group has made a series of recommendations to the council’s executive, including how best to spend £43,000 of remaining council holiday hunger cash, targeted support for families and information packs to signpost people to sources of support.

Coun Webb added: “We need to make sure we’re maximizing everything we can possibly do in order to support our most vulnerable.”

Ms Stuchfield said: “Vouchers are helpful, but they may only be a sticking plaster for the underlying issue that might be affecting the family so it is important to have that complete wrap-around care.”

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