A MOTHER who was late paying for her children’s school meals was threatened by a debt collection agency for owing £ 32.
The mother of four expressed her anger after receiving the letter from the school office.
She admits that she struggled to keep up with payments for school meals and was told that if she didn’t pay the money she owed, then the debt would be passed on.
She said, “I was furious. I wrote them a letter with strong terms pointing out that we are in the midst of a global crisis.
“You know you owe it, but couldn’t they wait until the end of the month for my husband to get paid?”
“The chief rang and apologized.
“She said she didn’t mean it was like that, but it’s really distressing to receive a letter saying if you don’t pay they will forward it to a debt collection agency.”
The woman, who has four children aged eight, nine, 12 and 16, has to spend around £ 200 a month on school meals, which is 13% of the family budget.
She said: “We are not entitled to universal credit because my husband works and the children therefore do not receive free school meals. We manage, but the dinner situation is quite expensive.
“It would make a huge difference if the government changed the rules on free school meals.
“It would be one less thing to fear. ”
The woman said her youngest child was in her second year during the coronavirus outbreak and would normally have been entitled to free school meals at that time, but she doesn’t even have vouchers.
The mother said: “Feeding four children during the lockdown was expensive – they just came and went to the fridge.
“My husband being paid monthly, you owe, you owe, you owe.
“Extending free school meals would only reduce the pressure. ”
The mother’s story comes as a report reveals that more than 35,000 students in the North East who live below the poverty line are not entitled to free school meals under current legislation.
The new report, The Cost of Missing Lunchtime, finds that one in four of the region’s poorest families is not entitled to a free, nutritious daily school meal.
The data also highlights that another 4,000 students in the North East, living in families without recourse to public funds, due to their immigration status, could also be missed if the temporary extension of school meals to these households n is not made permanent.
Luke Bramhall of Children North-East, who conducted the study with the Child Poverty Action Group and the North East Child Poverty Commission, said: “It is clearly not normal that thousands of elementary and middle school students are secondary school in our region are deprived of vital nutrition.
“We believe the current eligibility threshold for free school meals is too low, so we call on the government to restore the previous eligibility threshold, which included all families benefiting from universal credit.
“This should be extended to all those who receive equivalent benefits.
“In addition, we want the temporary extension of eligibility for free school meals to be made permanent for households without recourse to public funds.”
In 2013, the government introduced a temporary measure, allowing all families benefiting from universal credit to be entitled to free school meals.
This was designed to protect families from losing their rights during the early stages of deployment.
As of April 2018, families must have an income below £ 7,400 to be eligible.
Children of the Northeast, CPAG and NECPC say this has led many students who live in poverty to fall through the net of free school meals.
The report states that the poorest children are not only deprived of nutrition, but they are also deprived of additional help in the classroom, as free school meals are directly linked to the financing of the premium for the pupils.
Alison Garnham, Managing Director of CPAG, said: “We know that free school meals help families in difficulty stay afloat, as well as improve the health and educational outcomes of their children.
“But many in the North East are missing something, putting children in hardship.
“The government must act urgently and expand eligibility for free school meals to ensure that no child goes hungry.
“Schools and local authorities can also play an important role in ensuring that already eligible families get free school meals: this has benefits for eligible children but also increases school funding that helps all students. ”
The three organizations, Children North East, Child Poverty Action Group and North-East Child Poverty Commission, calculated that it would cost £ 38.1million to extend free school meals to all households in the North East benefiting from the universal credit or equivalent benefits. , in addition to the current status quo.
Amanda Bailey, Director of NECPC, said it was cost effective: “Research shows that free school meals have a number of proven benefits and are an effective measure against child poverty.
“They can help stimulate children’s learning and success as well as support their health by providing them with a balanced meal every day.
“Children also benefit from the social experience of sitting together, eating the same food and sharing the dining experience. For families, the right to free school meals can ease pressure on household budgets and free up money for other living expenses.
“Expanding free school meals to more children can also help tackle inequalities by reducing the number of children in low-income families who lack them, and it can reduce the stigma associated with the law.” . ”
The report’s recommendations, which is sent to North East MPs, local authorities and schools, include:
· Local authorities should review their free school meals policies, processes and practices to ensure that they maximize the number of families taking their entitlement to free school meals. Data suggests that the current rate of use of free school meals in the North East is 89% (116,000 eligible students with only 103,000 applicants).
Local authorities should make information about free school meals easily accessible and directly linked to Covid response pages / other financial inclusion information on their websites.
· Schools should identify and address any existing policies or practices that prevent students from enjoying their right to free school meals or further disadvantage them.
· Local authorities and schools should provide child poverty training to school staff to help raise awareness of the problem and help schools identify practical ways to increase support for families who may be in difficulty.
Neville Harrison, principal of St Bede’s in Lanchester, which was not the school that sent the letter to the struggling mother, said: “It’s great that these organizations keep the debate on free school meals in the world. public domain.
“The more MPs, local authorities and schools can discuss this issue, the better the outcomes for children and families in need. ”
A government spokesperson said there are currently around 1.6 million pupils entitled to free school meals.
She said: “During the pandemic, we have temporarily extended eligibility to include certain groups that have no recourse to public funds, who will remain in place while we think more.
“We are also committed to expanding the Breakfast Club program for disadvantaged students over the next two years and – outside of school periods – we have expanded our holiday and catering program to all authorities. locals in England this year.
“The Covid Local Support Grant, an extension of the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, will continue to support vulnerable families. ”