As more children rely on them nationally, the Children’s Society warns that the pandemic has caused “long-term, devastating consequences” for those in low-income families.
Data from the Department of Education shows that by the end of the 2020-21 school year, 48% of the East Riding of Yorkshire’s children in need were eligible for free school meals – up from 41% at the same point in 2016-17.
A child in need is defined by the Government as a child who needs support from their local authority to maintain a decent standard of development and education.
This includes children with disabilities and special educational needs, young carers, children who have committed crimes, and those with parents in prison.
Free school meals are available to children who have parents receiving benefits or are on incomes of less than £7,400 – so an increase in the number of children on free school meals can be an indicator of declining living standards.
Last school year England saw the largest increase in eligibility among children in need since 2016-17, when the figures were first recorded, of 6%.
Across the country, 57% of children in this category were eligible for free school meals at the end of 2020-21, up from 45% in 2016-17.
This compares to 21% among the overall pupil population, up from 14% in 2017. In the East Riding, 17% of all pupils were on free school meals, compared to 12% in 2017.
Last year a report from the Child Poverty Action Group, a charity tackling child poverty, estimated that across the UK around one million children in poverty did not have access to free school meals due to high eligibility criteria.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want to ensure every eligible child has access to free school meals, which is why we have expanded access to them more than any other government in recent decades.”