Free school meals
If you have young children and you are claiming a means-tested benefit, there are several other entitlements you may be eligible for. This guide will tell you about Free School Meals, the Healthy Start scheme (in England/Wales/Northern Ireland), Best Start (in Scotland) and getting help with school uniform costs.
Free school meals - what is it and can I get it?
In England, if you have children at a state school in reception, year 1 or year 2 they are entitled to free school meals regardless of your household income.
In Scotland, if you have children at a state school in any year between reception and year 4 they are entitled to free school meals regardless of your household income. From January 2022 this will also be available for children in year 5.
In any part of the UK, from year 3 onwards, your children could get free lunches (and sometimes milk, breakfast or fruit) at school if you are receiving one of the benefits below (please also check additional criteria for devolved nations further down the page):
- Income Support
- Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance
- Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
- Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
- The guarantee element of Pension Credit
- Child Tax Credit (provided you’re not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)
- Working Tax Credit 'run-on' - the payment someone may receive for a further four weeks after they stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
- Universal Credit - if you apply on or after 1 April 2018 your household income must be less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits you get) at the time of your application. If your income goes above the threshold in the future, but you remain on Universal Credit, your child will remain eligible. If you applied before 1 April 2018 there was no household income threshold for Universal Credit claimants.
Extra measures in place during the Covid-19 pandemic
If you are claiming free school meals food will be provided whether your child is attending school or they are self-isolating at home. Eligibility has also been extended to include some groups who have no recourse to public funds. Depending on where you live the food may be provided by your child's school or your local authority as lunch packs, vouchers, meals or money.
In addition, food is usually provided in term time only but during the coronavirus pandemic support has been extended to cover the school holidays.
In England, until 30 September 2021, this will be provided through the
. During 2021 Scottish families will also receive extra cash payments from their local authority as follows: £100 at Easter, £100 in the summer, £160 in October and £160 in December. In 2022, 4 equal payments of £130 will be made at Easter, Summer, October and Christmas. This can be spent on anything the family needs, not just food.
Universal Credit and free school meals
Any child of a Universal Credit claimant, who was getting free school meals as at 1 April 2018 under the old criteria (no income threshold), or makes a successful new claim after 1 April 2018 under the new criteria (with the income threshold) will keep their free school meals until March 2022, even if the household’s income rises above the income threshold - as long as they remain on Universal Credit.
At March 2022 if the pupil is still at school they will keep their free school meals until they move to the next phase of education (primary or secondary).
Because of the changes it means that one child could be entitled to a free school meal and a sibling not entitled. For example, if a Universal Credit claimant with 2 children has net earnings of £10,000 and applied for free school meals for their eldest child in September 2017, the application would have been successful as there was no income threshold. The free school meal for that child is protected. In September 2018 the younger child is not eligible for a free school meal because the household income is over the newly introduced threshold.
Additional eligibility criteria - Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
The cut off date for your household income to be less than £7,400 a year was 1 April 2019 (not 1 April 2018) and will continue to apply until December 2023 (not March 2022).
In addition to the eligibility rules above you can also claim in Scotland if you receive Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit and your income is under £7,330. The household income limit for Universal Credit claimants is also slightly different at £610 a month.
The Universal Credit earnings threshold is £14,000 a year in Northern Ireland. You are also eligible in Northern Ireland if your child has a statement of special educational needs and is designated to need a special diet, or they board at a special school.
How do I claim?
Free school meals are administered by local authorities or, in Northern Ireland, the local education and library boards. To make a claim contact your local authority (you can find contact details via the end child food poverty website) or get more info and a form from your local education and library board.
Healthy Start - In England, Wales, Northern Ireland
With Healthy Start you can get:
- Coupons to exchange for free vitamins (from 5 February 2021 you can receive electronic vouchers or a pre-payment card if you live in Northern Ireland)
- Weekly vouchers to buy milk, fresh or plain frozen fruit and vegetables, or infant formula milk
Healthy Start - can I get it?
If you're on certain benefits you could qualify. You'll need to be at least 10 weeks pregnant or have a child under four.
If you are pregnant and under the age of 18, you will automatically qualify whether or not you get other benefits.
You won't qualify if you get Working Tax Credit, unless it's just the four week extension of your payments - often called a 'run-on'. You may get a run-on after you stopped qualifying for Working Tax Credit - for example if you’ve stopped work or reduced your hours.
You don't have to get Child Benefit to qualify for Healthy Start. If you qualify for Healthy Start through Child Tax Credit, you’ll automatically get an application form in the post.
Healthy Start is administered by the Department of Health. To check that you qualify and to make a claim go to the Healthy Start website.
Best Start - In Scotland
Best Start, which has been available in Scotland since 12 August 2019, has two parts - Best Start Foods and Best Start Grants.
With Best Start Foods you can get:
- A payment card that can be used to buy fresh eggs, milk, (plain cow’s milk and first infant formula), fruit and vegetables fresh, frozen or tinned, pulses (peas, lentils and beans - dried, fresh, frozen or tinned).
- The card can be used in large supermarkets and smaller local shops, either online or in store, where ever a shop sells the healthy foods listed on your card and displays the Mastercard logo.
- Since 1 August 2021 the payments of Best Start Foods are: £18 every 4 weeks during pregnancy, £36 every 4 weeks from your child being born up until they are 1 years old and £18 every 4 weeks between the ages of 1 and 3.
Best Start Food is designed to replace Healthy Start for people living in Scotland. If you are already getting Healthy Start Vouchers you will eventually be moved from Healthy Start to Best Start.
With Best Start Grants you can get up to three cash payments for each child. The following grants can be spent on anything you like:
- the Pregnancy and Baby Payment is £600 for your first child and £300 for any further children. You can claim when you are 24 weeks pregnant up to the day your baby is 6 months old (1 year old if the child is adopted). There is an extra payment of £300 if you have twins or triplets. You cannot claim the grant if you have already received the Sure Start Maternity Grant for the same baby.
- the Early Learning Payment gives £250 for each child between the ages 2 years old and 3 years 6 months old.
- the School Age Payment is another £250 per child. The date you need to apply depends on the age of your child. You can currently claim until 28 February 2022 if you have a child who was born between 1 March 2016 and 28 February 2017.
Best Start Grant is designed to replace Sure Start Maternity Grant for people living in Scotland. It does not replace the School Clothing Grant, which you may also be able to claim. See the end of this guide for more info.
Best Start - can I get it?
You can get a Best Start Food payment card or Best Start Grant:
- if you're the parent of a child, or the main person looking after the child, and the child is the right age for a payment
- whether you're in work or not
- if you are aged under 18 (some 18 and 19 years olds are also eligible) or you have applied / are getting certain payments or benefits listed on the mygov.scot website. For Best Start Food some of the benefits have income limits but Best Start Grant does not have income limits. You can't get it if you only get Child Benefit.
You can apply for Best Start Foods when you're pregnant, or any time up to your child turning 3 years old.
Find out more and apply on the mygov.scot website.
Help with school uniform costs
Local authorities, and sometimes schools, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, can provide a grant of around £100 a year to help with the cost of buying a school uniform and sports kit.
Eligibility criteria is often the same as for Free School Meals above, however some elements and amounts may be different in each area.
The gov.uk website allows you to search for the details of your authority's scheme including how to apply for the grant.