The number of children on free school meals in England shot up from 1.44 million to 1.63 million during the pandemic, figures published by the government show.
In the 10 months between January and October last year, nearly 20% of the 8.2 million state school pupils were in receipt of free lunches, the Guardian reports.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) suggested it was inevitable that more pupils would become eligible for free school meals during the pandemic.
“That’s why we have ensured that throughout this period, schools have continued to accept applications for free school meals, providing meals to anyone who becomes newly eligible, including while pupils were learning remotely,” the spokesperson said.
However, campaigners believe that the issue of food uncertainty is even more widespread than the government figures suggest. The Food Foundation think tank estimates that 2.3 million children experienced food insecurity over the past six months.
In January, Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford called on the government to carry out a review of its school meals policy. He urged eligibility rules to be changed to allow 1.5 million extra children whose parents are on universal credit to get free school dinners.
The DfE highlighted plans to extend the breakfast clubs programme for disadvantaged pupils over the next two years. It also pointed out how it has expanded holiday activities and food programmes to every local authority across the country this year.
But Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), accused Boris Johnson of having “persistently failed” to deliver for young people in poverty.
He added: “The experience of the last year has shown just how vital this is to children’s education. Today’s figures are truly shocking and confirm the experience of NEU members.”