As the new school year begins, thousands of Hertfordshire children in reception and Years 1 and 2 will automatically benefit from free school meals for the first time.
All of the county’s 367 state schools have a plan in place to be ready to serve meals for the new school year – with new equipment needing to be installed in 300 of them.
Herts County Council has spent £2.6million on the scheme, on top of an initial grant of £2.9m from the Department for Education, which itself has allocated £2.30 for each school meal.
Hertfordshire Catering Limited, which serves 96 percent of school meals in the county, has run a huge campaign to recruit 180 additional staff required to deliver the service. In the East of England, Herts makes up the second highest number of children benefitting from the new free school meals system, with 38,010 pupils in reception and Years 1 and 2 being added to the automatic entitlement scheme.
The county is second only to nearby Essex with 39,843 – though the two are among the biggest areas in the region.
According to the Children’s Society, the landmark move will make free school meals available to around 1.5 million more children nationally than before the change. This includes those from families living below the poverty line.
But the charity, which has provided statistics comparing Herts with neighbouring counties, remains concerned that older children from poorer backgrounds continue to miss out.
Chief Executive of The Children’s Society Matthew Reed said: “The extension of free school meals to all infants in the East of England is a positive step forward in the fight against child poverty, and shows that the government recognises the hardship that thousands of families are facing.
“But for poor youngsters older than seven, nothing has changed. That’s why it is vital that ministers build on this to make sure that every child in poverty is guaranteed a free school meal, whatever their age.”
Unsurprisingly due to Herts’ large population, the estimated number of those gaining entitlement to free school meals who are living in poverty is the second-highest in the region.
Of the total receiving the automatic free meals, 3,589 Herts pupils are thought to be living in poverty. The number is more than six times that of bordering, but smaller, Central Bedfordshire, with just 567.
Essex’s total is again the highest, with 4,438.
The Children’s Society estimates 3.7 million children in the UK are living in poverty. This week’s extension of free school meals is estimated to reduce the number of children in poverty who are not entitled to a free school meal from around 700,000 to 500,000.