Heriot-Watt University: Scale of school meal debt revealed as over £1M in Scotland

Research from the Institute of Social Policy, Housing and Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) on behalf of Aberlour, Scotland’s Children’s Charity has revealed that more than £1M is currently owed by Scottish families who can’t afford to pay for their children’s school meals.

The report, led by Professor Morag Treanor from Heriot-Watt University and commissioned by the charity, has for the first time revealed the extent of the hidden hunger impacting Scottish pupils.

Speaking exclusively to the Guardian today, Professor Treanor described the figure of £1, 032,500 as “just the tip of the iceberg” with the majority of money owed by pupils in the final years of primary school. For those in Primary 1-4, school meals in Scotland are funded by the Scottish Government.

Treanor also told the newspaper that there are “unquantified levels of hidden hunger in secondary schools” with a huge variation between councils over how debt is recovered with some referring it on to debt recovery services when it reaches as little as £10.

Pupils who were interviewed as part of the research spoke of friends who are not currently eligible for free meals going hungry while others save their lunch money to give it back to their parents.

One pupil said: “In my friend group, I’d say about half of them can’t eat food when we go out, so you see people buying food for their friends … We go to Greggs and, because I’ve got like £3 or £3.50 to spend, I’ll get two yum yums and a sausage roll, and I’ll give them the yum yums.”

The report also discussed how secondary pupils are likely to feel stigmatised when going to the school office to request a voucher when they are unable to pay for a school meal with some local authorities only providing a voucher on a discretionary basis or limiting the holder to certain food choices.

The report calls for the Scottish Government to increase the free school meal threshold to £25,190 and increase it annually in line with inflation. It also asks for the Scottish Government to commit to universal free school meal entitlement for all primary classes immediately, and for a similar entitlement for secondary pupils to be implemented before the end of this parliament.

Martin Canavan, head of policy and participation at Aberlour Children’s Charity said: “The Scottish Government can do that through devolved powers. Far fewer families are eligible for free school meals now than they were 20 years ago when the thresholds were first introduced, despite the fact that in the last 10 years we’ve seen child poverty significantly rise.

“Holyrood should consider access to food as a children’s rights issue. Scotland is looking to incorporate the UNCRC [UN convention on the rights of the child], which is a significant commitment we absolutely support, but we need to recognise that the issue of school hunger and significant numbers of children going hungry every single day is actually a breach of children’s human rights. Looking towards universal provision would be one way to make sure all children have that right to eat and be fed.”