Government plans to change the free school meals rules are “cruel” and will make vulnerable families suffer.
That is the strong view of Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, a head teacher and a church leader in one of the most-deprived areas of the borough.
Ms Nandy met education leaders including Gill Leek who is in the top job at Marsh Green Primary School and Rev Denise Hayes from St Barnabas’ Church to talk about ministers’ proposal for a net household earning threshold of £7,400 to decide which children could get lunch with no cost.
The response was quite clear, with some at the meeting talking of employees left crying by the plight of Wigan’s poorest youngsters.
Appalling figures from the Children’s Society estimate more than 3,500 children in Wigan receive free school meals but another 6,200 do not take them up even though they could.
Ms Nandy has now spoken of how vital free meals are to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed at school while Rev Hayes and Ms Leek spoke vividly about their front-line experiences of poverty in the borough.
Ms Nandy said: “Free school meals are a lifeline for thousands of families across Wigan who rely on them to help make ends meet.
“They help to ensure that some of our most vulnerable children receive at least one warm, nutritious meal each day.
“As well as vital for the health and wellbeing of our children, free school lunches help to improve performance and attainment in the classroom.
“If government proposals to place a threshold on the amount a household can earn while still receiving free school meals are forced through, it will be some of our most vulnerable families who suffer.”
Ms Leek said: “We have seen a steady decline over the past few years in the number of pupils eligible for free school meals, yet an increase in the use of our foodbank. Something appears to be wrong with our system.
“Changes regarding eligibility for free school meals will have another huge impact on children’s basic needs being able to be met by schools and puts the most vulnerable in society at a greater disadvantage.”
Rev Hayes did not hold back her criticism of Westminster over the issue.
She said: “For the government to now withdraw this resource from so many families, families who are already stretched to the limit financially is cruel and will detrimentally impact many in our community.
“We already have families struggling to make ends meet and parents doing without basic things in order to provide for their children.
“For these families to now have to find the money for a school meal every day is pushing them too far.
“It’s also a false economy as the money saved on the free school meal entitlement will be more than used on the knock-on effects food poverty will have on our children in their health and learning capabilities and the damage further poverty will have on our communities.”
However, Bolton West MP Chris Green accused Labour of telling “a bare-faced lie” on Twitter, saying eligibility for meals would actually go up.