By Andrew Topping, Local Democracy Reporter
The number of Nottinghamshire children whose family circumstances mean they qualify for free school meals has soared by around 10,000 since the start of the pandemic.
At least 29,885 pupils were known to be eligible for food support in the county’s schools during the Easter holidays last month.
However, Nottinghamshire County Council papers estimate this has since increased to about 30,000 pupils.
And data published by the authority last year confirmed the number of known eligible children in March 2020 – right at the beginning of the Covid pandemic – was 19,061 countywide.
It means the number of children whose families requiring support with food has increased by about 57 per cent in two years.
The latest figure also represents more than one in four of the 113,451 children who were on the roll in Nottinghamshire schools during a census survey conducted in January this year.
And it comes at a time when families across Nottinghamshire and the country are facing a surge in the cost of living.
Children and families are eligible for free school meals when households meet a set of criteria – including being on Universal Credit with a net income of no more than £7,400.
Families on Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance are also eligible.
And parents receiving Child Tax Credit are also eligible, permitting they are not entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190.
The data has led to concern from opposition councillors in Nottinghamshire, with the figures described as “shocking”.
Councillor Debbie Darby (Ind), who represents Collingham, is the Independent Alliance’s spokesperson for children and young people.
She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “These figures are shocking and show child hunger continues to rise across our county.
“They are the single biggest indicator of poverty, and we expect these figures to rise and rise again as the cost of living increases.
“A growing number of residents are increasingly becoming reliant on food banks, but many are being put off by the bad publicity surrounding them – especially lately.
“These figures show that residents, including my area of Newark, are going hungry. It’s not a case of heat or eat – many can do neither.”
Cllr Michelle Welsh, Labour’s spokesperson on the issue, added: “When you consider foodbank usage is at its highest ever number in this country, this shows the cost of living crisis is one of increasing levels of child poverty across Nottinghamshire.
“Free school meals are incredibly important, clearly the families who rely on them should get the support they need, but people will be rightly asking the question ‘why are these numbers going up?’
“Wages are falling at a time when inflation is surging, the cost of living crisis is sky-rocketing, and as a result Nottinghamshire families are really struggling and in many cases aren’t able to make ends meet.”
Conservative-led Nottinghamshire County Council is planning to approve provision for free school meal vouchers for all eligible pupils during the half-term holiday later this month.
A delegated decision will be taken by Cllr John Cottee (Con), cabinet member for communities, on approving about £450,000 in vouchers for the one-week school break through the Household Support Fund.
Under the proposals, each child would receive vouchers to the value of £3 per day, or £15 for the five-day week, to support families with food during the half-term.
The council has operated this project in the most recent school holidays over the past six months.
Cllr Cottee is expected to approve the funding during the delegated decision on Tuesday (May 24) – the first of its kind since a return to cabinet governance.
In a statement, he said: “I’m proud that we have decided to use the Household Support Fund to once again fund thousands of free school meals for pupils from low-income households during the school holidays.
“We’ve taken these steps because we understand the cost of living is hurting local families, and we want to use what is in our toolbox to ease the pressure.
“I hope that struggling families whose children are eligible for free school meals will now feel more comfortable as we approach the half-term holidays.”