Demand for free school meals soars in Weston

Picture of school desk filled with empty dinner plates.

There has been a 20 per cent rise in the number of North Somerset students eligible for free school meals. - Credit: Pixabay

The number of children eligible for free schools meals has soared in Weston following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Between January 2020 and 2021, 4,302 pupils in North Somerset qualified for the scheme which supports low income families. This compares to 3,595 the previous year - a 20 per cent rise.

North Somerset Council's executive for children's services stated that the number was trending upwards prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Cllr Catherine Gibbons said: "It is a fact that the number of children on free school meals was rising even before the pandemic due to 10 or more years of pressure on families’ budgets.

"The effects of the pandemic have seriously exacerbated the issues with so many people furloughed so that one in five children across the country are now eligible (for free school meals).

"There are families with desperate needs and the levels of inequality and child poverty  in our society are shameful."

Mrs Gibbons added that the issue just be "a top priority for the government".

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Weston's Bournville Primary School is one of the worst affected schools in the area, with more than half of its students eligible for free school meals.

Bournville's headteacher said staff came up with creative ways to raise funds to support families through the pandemic.

Marie Berry said: "We have seen a significant rise in free school meals, with around 56 per cent of students now eligible.

"The Covid pandemic has impacted disadvantaged families and led us to think outside of the box with initiatives such as our Fuel Fund and working with North Somerset Council to hand out food vouchers during holidays."

Marie Berry

Bournville principal, Marie Berry said that the school has had to think outside of the box to secure funding. - Credit: Bournville Primary School

Mrs Berry also said a change in government education policy has left schools short-changed.

She added: "The government usually carries out three consensuses a year to determine funding for free school meals.

"This year's first was scheduled for January but instead results were taken from October last year and may have omitted a number of students eligible for free school meals. Every penny counts and there will be a lack of funding across the country."

Weston Helping People is one of the many community response groups created in the wake of the pandemic and its founder believes the issue of food poverty is 'never-ending'.

James Willis-Boden said: "When we started the group we hoped to help around 1,000 people with meals and received 1,400 meal requests from North Somerset Council.

"At least 400 of these made repeat orders and we had 400 volunteers working for us, although these numbers have dwindled as the restrictions have been lifted and people return to work.

"The issue is never-ending and Covid highlights the problem. We cannot go back to normal again."

You can apply for free school meals by visiting www.n-somerset.gov.uk/my-services/schools-learning/local-schools/free-school-meals

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