Nearly seven in 10 children in England whose families are entitled to universal credit are not eligible for free school meals, according to a report.
Families on universal credit (UC) are much more likely to be food insecure than other households, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said.
Currently, households in England receiving UC must earn below £7,400 a year before benefits and after tax to qualify for free school meals.
This cap for means-tested free school meals means that around 1.7 million pupils in England whose families are entitled to UC – 69% of this group – are not eligible for free lunches, researchers said.
Nearly 30% of families claiming UC were classified as food insecure in 2021/22, six times the rate among families not claiming UC, the IFS report said.
It suggests that expanding eligibility to all children whose families claim UC could cost about £1 billion a year in the longer term, a 70% increase in spending on free school meals.
Raising the income cap to £20,000 a year for families on UC would be a less expensive reform and it would bring around 900,000 children in low-income families into eligibility, the IFS said.
This would cost around £425 million a year and would mean that around two-thirds of children whose families get UC also get means-tested free school meals, according to researchers.
The report follows an announcement last month by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan of a £130 million emergency scheme to extend free school meals to every primary school pupil in the capital for one year, starting in September, in an effort to help struggling households amid the cost-of-living crisis.
The Scottish Government has committed to providing free school meals for all primary school pupils, while in Wales the rollout of universal primary free school meals began in September.
Currently in England all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 in state schools – around 1.5 million infants – are entitled to a free lunch.
Another 1.9 million children in England are currently eligible for means-tested free school meals.
Offering free school meals to all primary and secondary school pupils (up to Year 11) would cost an extra £2.5 billion a year, nearly trebling current spending, the IFS.
Report co-author Andrew McKendrick, research economist at the IFS, said: “Universalising free school meals would affect children across the income distribution and might have wider benefits for health and educational outcomes, but it would also significantly increase existing spending.
“Expanding eligibility – for example, to include more families on universal credit – would focus more of the additional spending on low-income families, but still would not directly benefit the very poorest children, who are already entitled to free lunches.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is shameful that so many children continue to miss out on a scheme with such proven benefits.
“As this report states, there is clear evidence that increasing the take-up of school lunches has a positive impact on living standards, nutrition and attainment that persists into adulthood.
“Providing free school meals alleviates some of the pressure on struggling families and gives children the guarantee of a healthy meal every day.
“ASCL and many other organisations have long called for free school meals to be extended to all children whose families are in receipt of universal credit.
“This is a simple, immediate step the government could take to ease the impact of the cost-of-living crisis which has made life even more difficult for many families.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Since the rollout of universal credit began, we have made sure that once a pupil becomes eligible for free school meals, they remain eligible until the end of that phase of education, regardless of any changes in their parents’ income.
“The number of children receiving a free meal at school has increased by more than two million since 2010, thanks to the introduction of universal infant free school meals and the generous protections put in place as benefit recipients move across to universal credit.
“Over a third of pupils in England now receive free school meals in education settings, compared with one in six in 2010, and we have made a further investment in the National School Breakfast Programme to extend the programme for another year, backed by up to £30 million.”