Sadiq Khan has called for all pupils in primary school to get free school meals as the UK grapples with the cost of living crisis and soaring inflation.
The mayor of London said every child in the capital “deserves that safety net” of the scheme and called for all students in Years 3, 4, 5 and 6 to receive it – regardless of family income – from the start of the new academic year .
All infant school pupils currently get free school meals, but only those from the most disadvantaged families qualify in older years.
The government has so far resisted calls to expand free school meals during the cost of living crisis.
Former education secretaries and unions have said they want to see all families on universal credit qualify, instead of only those with earnings under £ 7,400 a year, and for the scheme to run over summer.
The mayor has joined the call for free school meal vouchers to run during the summer holidays as families worry about feeding their children over the break and “train” themselves to eat less without any extra help.
But Mr Khan has gone one step further and said the scheme should also cover all primary school pupils thereafter.
“Free school meals were something my family relied upon – and every child in London deserves that safety net,” he told The Independent.
“With the summer holidays on the horizon, it is essential that the government acts now to reinstate the meal voucher system to give families dignity and nutritional choice over the summer.”
He added: “This should then be followed by the introduction of universal free school meals for all primary schoolchildren from the start of the new school year in September.”
Charities have raised concerns that children in poverty are slipping through the cracks and not qualifying for the free school meal scheme.
Although nearly two million children are eligible for free school meals, the Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that there are 800,000 more children in poverty who are not covered by this support.
The mayor’s office said research showed that universal free school meals would not only help support families in the cost of living crisis, but would also reduce stigma over using the scheme and boost take-up.
Mr Khan said “multiple” councils in London – Islington, Southwark, Newham and Tower Hamlets – were already “leading the way” on universal free school meals for primary pupils, and he called on this to be expanded nationwide.
He also called for the amount of funding given to schools for free school meals to be boosted given spiralling inflation, which has hit a 40-year high this year.
The government recently boosted funding for infant free school meals, but this has been criticized as “inadequate” for failing to keep up with the rate of inflation.
Parents and headteachers have also told The Independent children are being given less to eat at school as food prices soar.
A government spokesperson said: “The increased per-pupil funding rate for universal infant free school meals amounts to approximately £ 18m per year overall, and will help schools continue to provide free, healthy and nutritious lunches for the 1.25 million children in reception, Year 1 and Year 2. ”
“More widely, this government has expanded access to free school meals more than any other in recent decades, and is targeting more than £ 37bn to help the most vulnerable.”
They added: “We continue to work across government to address rising costs and will keep free school meals eligibility under review to make sure these meals are supporting those who most need them.”