INTRODUCING universal free school meals could make sure that all children living below the poverty line don’t go hungry.
By doing this, the perception that there is a stigma to receiving free school meals could also be minimised.
At a meeting of the Economy, Residents and Communities scrutiny committee on Monday, September 6 councillors were given a presentation by Ellie Harwood of the the Child Poverty Action Group.
She explained that 42 per cent of the children throughout Wales who live below the poverty line don’t qualify for free school meals.
Qualifying for free school meals is seen by the Welsh Government as one of the main indicators of poverty.
Children qualify if their parents or carers receive income support, employment, and support allowance, claim job seekers allowance , or Universal Credit of less than £7,400 a year or child tax credits of less than £16,190 a year.
The problem in Powys, is that it is a high-cost low wage economy.
Ms Harwood said “This is disproportionately the case in Powys, most families in poverty are in work and don’t meet the free school meals criteria.
“A lot of children in poverty can’t get free school meals.”
Ms Harwood explained that one of the problems she had found in Powys is that people do not claim the benefits they are entitled to that would “maximise their income” because of stigma.
The council’s own research shows that 1,921 or 12 per cent of the school pupils in Powys are eligible for free school meals.
This is less than the national average of 18 per cent.
Of the 1,921 pupils, 16 per cent of these children who are eligible are not receiving free school meals.
Cllr Gareth Jones said: “I find it very alarming that 42 per cent of children don’t qualify for theses free school meals and that’s something we really need to look at.”
Cllr Jones believed that Parent Pay, the cashless system now used at Powys schools could help boost the free school meals numbers.
Cllr Jones said: “It’s an easy fix, if we can identify these families and show them there is a road to get to this and the stigma won’t be as evident as the parent pay makes it easier and more confidential.”
Council leader, Cllr Rosemarie Harris said that work to increase the numbers receiving free school meals had taken place five years ago and thought it might be time again for a campaign to get as many as possible of the 16 per cent to take up free school meals.
“We can give an assurance to those concerned about the confidentiality,” said Cllr Harris.
Committee chairman, Cllr Mathew Dorrance, said: “Those children who are not currently eligible will be hungry too.”
He wondered whether introducing universal free school meals for all children in Powys schools is a possibility?
“We as a committee could look at the cost and benefit implications of that,” said Cllr Dorrance.
The committee also recommended if more funding is needed for universal free school meals, the council lobbies the Welsh Government in a bid to bring about a national change.