Boris Johnson is being urged to end the “lottery” of free school meals over the summer amid warnings Britain is “going backwards” on helping millions of hungry children.
The Conservative chair of the Commons education select committee and senior clergy have called on the government to ensure some of the poorest children do not face further uncertainty accessing food during the holidays.
Spiralling inflation has sent energy and food prices soaring, leaving many families struggling to make ends meet.
But the Sutton Trust charity has warned of a growing postcode lottery in support for children on free school meals during the summer holidays.
In response to previous criticism, ministers set up a “holiday activities and food programme” during the summer and other school closures. But critics warn that it covers only part of the holidays, can be patchy and can require money for travel that families cannot afford.
Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons education select committee, said he supported the holiday activities and food programme, but added: “If it is patchy then the government has got to work with local councils to make sure the money reaches the councils, and the councils and the schools are doing a good programme.”
He said he did not support the expansion of free school meals to all those whose families receive universal credit, saying he favoured a more targeted approach and called for more money to be spent on school breakfasts.
The Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson, told The Independent he thought the UK was “going backwards” on the issue, despite footballer Marcus Rashford’s high-profile free school meals campaign.
Ministers are this week set to snub calls to urgently expand the number of children receiving free food at school to ease the cost of living crisis.
At the moment around 1.9 million children are eligible, but the current threshold is an income below £7,400 a year – a figure that has been described as “ridiculously low”.
An independent report into the issue, commissioned by Michael Gove, recommended around 1 million more children be given free school meals – an idea that has been backed by former education secretaries from both the Conservative and Labour parties, as well as unions and charities.
But it is thought ministers will not announce a huge expansion to the scheme on Monday, when they unveil a new flagship food strategy.
Dr Wilson said summer provision for children was a “postcode lottery” that was leaving them “disadvantaged for where they live. That cannot be right.”
He said that in the past free school meals were seen as an important public health measure, adding: “Now we seem to be talking about just education and not nutrition, as if malnourished children can learn anything.” He also called for an expansion in the overall number of children who receive free school meals.
“But I fear it will not happen. The prime minister is talking about people on benefits getting mortgages and not free school meals. It is bizarre.”
The Very Rev Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark in London, one of the most senior Anglican priests, urged the government to look again at the issue of expanding free school meals.
“Because otherwise we are letting a generation down,” he said.
“In the area around here, which is very mixed, the demands on our food bank are rising exponentially,” he said. “I think it is all part and parcel of the same thing. There are families around here who simply don’t have the resources that they need.”
A government spokesperson said ministers had increased access to free school meals more than any other government in recent decades.
He added: “The holiday activities and food programme runs during major school holidays, and wider welfare support is available through the household support fund, which helps vulnerable families in need with essentials, such as food and utility bills.”