Lifeline for hungry children who were told they wouldn't get a hot meal if parents owe school dinner money

Liverpool Echo - 08 Apr 2019

Children told they won't get a hot meal if their parents owe school dinner money have been handed a lifeline in a move aimed at reducing hunger on Merseyside.

A new working group of senior teaching staff has been set up by Wirral Council to create new guidelines for schools with parents unable to meet costs of their child's meals.

It follows a request from Frank Field MP's Feeding Birkenhead, Supporting Wirral charity, with the new group hoping to "guarantee every child a nutritious meal at lunchtime".

It will mean asking schools to help parents prevent arrears, advising them on potentially cheaper options, or arranging an affordable repayment plan at an early stage, rather than the "complete and sudden withdrawal" of meals.

It's been set up after the ECHO reported earlier this year how children at Birkenhead's Devonshire Park Primary School who don't have a packed lunch with them, and whose parents owe money to the school, would be given "toast or a bread roll" .

A representative from Feeding Birkenhead will be chairing the new working group, which Mr Field said could, if seen through, "help to add another layer of protection against child hunger in Wirral".

Mr Field said: "We have picked up a great deal of concern around some children having to go without hot meals at lunchtime if their parents have fallen behind on payments to the school. In particular, we are anxious about children’s ability to learn if they have not eaten a full lunch, and even more so if nobody knows whether those children will be eating a hot meal at home that evening.

"Given that so many parents on low incomes are in work, and therefore do not meet the free school meal criteria, it is vital that this new working group which has been gained by Feeding Birkenhead, Supporting Wirral is able to protect their children’s nutrition and ability to learn."

The issue has also arisen due to the number of adults now working zero-hours contracts, short hours and unpredictable shifts, meaning they often do not know how much they will earn from one week to the next. That means often falling behind on payments to the school for hot dinners.

Mr Field added: "This is the latest reform that Feeding Birkenhead, Supporting Wirral has initiated to protect children from hunger."

Wirral Council confirmed the initiative, but refused to comment further.

When the news about Devonshire Primary was reported back in January, the school said its policies were no different to any other, and that it was owed more than £1,000 in outstanding payments from parents last year.

A friend of a parent at the school, who wanted to remain anonymous, described the policy as "disgusting" - particularly given the current economic climate.

She said: "[My friend] works as a single mum but struggles financially.

"I think it needs to be made aware that it’s not just Universal Credit that is causing families to live in poverty.

"I'm guessing there will be plenty of parents in the same situation who have received the letter."

Tom Houghton, Liverpool Echo