A county councillor has insisted that providing free school meals for all schoolchildren would pay for itself in the long run.

In 2022, the North East as a region overtook London as the nation’s hotspot for child poverty for the first time. At that time, 38 per cent of children in the region were living in poverty according to figures from the End Child Poverty Commission.

This year, the North East Child Poverty Commission found that the proportion of North East children in poverty who are from working families had risen from 56 per cent to 67 per cent in under a decade.

READ MORE: New 'double council tax' rule comes into force - all you need to know

Children are currently entitled to free school meals from reception to year two, or older if their parents receive a range of benefits including universal credit or income support.

A poll carried out by Survation compared the experiences of 1,500 parents and 1,500 children (1,000 of each in England and 500 in London). The poll, carried out on behalf of the National Education Union (NEU)’s No Child Left Behind campaign, found:

  • 52 per cent of struggling parents/carers in England are cutting back on the food shop, 59 per cent on energy and 36 per cent on out-of-school activities for kids.
  • The picture is worse across England than in London. Since the start of this school year, only four in ten (41 per cent) parents in London have had to cut back on the food shop, compared to more than five in ten (54 per cent) across England
  • One in three (33 per cent) parents/carers struggling with food costs report having less food or less healthy food in their children’s lunchbox.

Furthermore, the NEU say the poll “paints a stark picture of hunger in the nation’s schools”, finding 37 per cent of children know someone at school who sometimes does not have enough to eat, while 28 per cent reported sharing food with hungry peers at least two or three times a month.

Labour’s Cllr Caroline Ball believes that free school meals should be offered to all school pupils.

The Northumberland county councillor represents the Ashington central ward – one of the most deprived wards in the county – and was a recipient of free school meals herself as a child.

She said: “I would ideally love to see meals free for every child that is in education. If Sweden, Finland and Brazil can do it, we can – even Rwanda has a policy on free school meals.

“The research shows that your attainment in school goes up so long-term, your tax base goes up. It just makes financial sense.

“The research is there. The kids will be better behaved and have better exam results.

“Let's go back to basics and feed the kids. Then we will have more money coming into the tax system to pay for them. We can link it all in.”

Cllr Ball also spoke of her own childhood, revealing that her mother had gone to huge lengths to provide for her when she was growing up in Ashington.

She continued: “I want to make things better for the next lot of kids and parents like my mum. She recently told me she sold her wedding ring to be able to buy me school shoes because she didn’t have the money to buy both trainers and shoes – and I was going to be suspended if I didn’t get ‘shoes’.

“Nothing has changed since then. With free school meals, I can remember going with my yellow ticket and it was embarrassing.

“The systems have changed with free school meals since then, but there’s still a stigma around it.

“Thirty-three years later people are doing the same, and we need bold policy change. We need to look at the bigger picture – the money is there, we just need to use it better.

“We have the answers, we’re just bad at doing them. It is national policy that needs to change, but if nobody locally raises the problem it will never get changed.

“If other places can do it, why can’t we?”

Since 2013, Southwark Council in London has funded a universal free school meal offer for all of its primary schools – previously one of only five English councils to do so, all of which are in the capital. The borough has high levels of deprivation, with 38 per cent of children living in poverty according to the Local Government Association.

The current household income threshold for government-funded free school meals of £7,400, excludes many children in the borough whose families are struggling financially.

Furthermore, in Southwark approximately 1 in 4 children in reception are overweight or obese (24 per cent). By Year 6, this increases to more than 1 in 3 children (42 per cent).

The LGA said that the council now recognises the “incredible” benefits of providing a healthy lunchtime meal for all primary school children, adding: “In light of the cost of living crisis, the practical support for families dealing with stretched budgets of having healthy lunches provided for their children at school cannot be understated.”

The meals cost £2.41 per child – the same as the Government provides for children eligible for free school meals under the current scheme.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has now extended free school meals to all children in London state primaries under the Free School Meals for All programme. Since then, the NEU has reported that 54 per cent of London parents said the scheme has improved the variety in their children’s diet.

78 per cent report family budgets easing somewhat or significantly due to Free School Meals for All.

According to UK school guide Snobe, there are 22,031 students in Northumberland’s 130 primary and first schools for the 2023/24 academic year.

Based on 190 days in the school calendar, providing free school meals to all primary school-aged children in the county would cost £10.09 million per year, equivalent to £457.90 per child.

However, neither the Conservatives nor the Labour Party have committed to providing universal free school meals. In July last year, Labour leader Keir Starmer said money was a “big factor” and the party would need to have “clear rules of what we can’t afford”.

The leader of Northumberland County Council, Cllr Glen Sanderson, felt there were better ways to tackle inequalities in the county.

He said: “Tackling inequalities is one of the council’s three key priorities and for good reason. I want us to do all we can to help those people who need our help the most.

“This means being absolutely committed to, making progress in, addressing child poverty.  We devote huge efforts in that direction.

“As part of that, we look to target help where it is needed – to those families most in need rather than providing something to all households whether they need it or even want it.”