‘You feel sick, exhausted’: Why children in extreme poverty are being denied free school meals.

Campaigners fear thousands of the UK’s poorest children are being denied free school meals after their families have been caught up in the immigration system, despite living in the UK for all or much of their lives. Huff Post reports.

As a parliamentary inquiry publishes a report into the food ‘insecurity’ faced by 4.1 million youngsters living in poverty, activists warn too many households are forgotten as they have no access to state benefits while waiting to hear about their status from the Home Office.

Among those to have suffered at the hands of this bureaucracy are Sarah and her son, James. Like many children, 10-year-old James is hungry by the time he gets home from school. Every day he walks for 25 minutes with Sarah to and from the primary school he has been attending since September. When they get home, James digs out some rice from the fridge to heat up in the microwave.

Since July, the family have had leave to remain in the UK with access to public funds, which means that James has access to free school meals. But James suffers from flashbacks of his life in North London, where he lived in hostels or slept wearing his school uniform in A&E waiting rooms. While the family were waiting to hear about their immigration status from the Home Office, they became one many with no recourse to public funds.

For James, who was born in the UK a decade ago, this meant that he was not eligible for free school dinners. His mother did her best with packed lunches and his friends shared their food. But sometimes, James felt hungry.

“Do you ever get that feeling when you’re very hungry and you can feel something in your head making a sound?” he says. “And you feel sick, exhausted. Mostly I can’t really focus.” 

A parliamentary inquiry into the future of children’s food, published on Thursday, has recommended that children from families with no recourse to public funds should be eligible to apply for free school meals like other children. Anna Taylor, the executive director of the Food Foundation, called for a series of policies to secure a child’s rights when their family is unable do so independently: “It doesn’t matter where these kids come from, they are not responsible for the situation their parents find themselves in. We need to respect that they have rights.”

As well as hunger and associated health problems, children who are denied a hot lunch face social isolation of knowing they are not being treated like others.

Project 17 submitted evidence to the Future Food Inquiry about a child whose mother who had been refused support from her local authority under Section 17. The child developed Pica, an eating disorder that involves eating non-food items. The child was regularly eating plasterboard, foam-like materials from his pillow, stuffing from his coat and fibre from socks and jumpers. He told his mother that the main reason he was eating these items was because he was extremely hungry.

In another case, a parent had accrued £1,000 of debt to the child’s school because she was unable to pay for their school meals, while the child was punished by not being allowed to attend the end of secondary school prom. In practice, many families find they are unable to access support through Section 17, or they are afraid to ask for fear that their child will be taken away or deported.

Grace, a campaigner with North East London Migrant Action (NELMA), believes the government should introduce universal free school meals to ensure that undocumented children and the children of refused asylum seekers are not left out. Grace says: “It is clear that the current system is not working. Children who need free school meals are being excluded. Universal free school meals doesn’t seem like too much to ask – we can subsidise MP’s lunches at Westminster after all.”

Read the full article ‘You feel sick, exhausted’: Why children in extreme poverty are being denied free school meals.

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