Shocking research reveals the impact of hunger in schools

EIGHTY THREE percent of primary school teachers say children are coming to school hungry because families cannot afford enough food – with a quarter saying children are skipping lunch entirely due to poverty, polling* released today (18 October) has revealed.

The polling of primary school teachers, carried out by Survation for the school food charity, Chefs in Schools, also heard from teachers who reported:

  • Kids stealing food from classmates.
  • Pupils storing food in their pockets to take home.
  • 85% of the teachers said there are children who are ineligible for Free School Meals who would benefit from receiving them.
  • 53% of teachers said their schools were providing a school meal for free
  • 69% were offering support/advice on where to access food (such as a foodbank)
  • 46% were offering food parcels

This research reignites the debate about extending eligibility for free school meals. Currently, 800,000 children at risk of going hungry are not entitled to support. 

It comes as food charities and organisations including – Chefs in Schools, Jamie Oliver, the Food Foundation, Biteback 2030 and School Food Matters – have launched a joint campaign – Feed the Future – which calls on the Government to urgently extend eligibility to all children in state-funded schools in England from families in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefits.

People are being asked to show their support for the campaign by writing to their MP and to sign the petition calling for change. 

England’s school meal eligibility threshold is the most restrictive of all the devolved nations –only families who earn below £7,400 are entitled to free school meals – whereas in Scotland and Wales, free school meals are being introduced for all children at primary level, while Northern Ireland’s eligibility threshold is almost twice that of England’s at £14,000. 

Naomi Duncan, Chief Executive at Chefs in Schools, said: “This research reveals the shocking reality that teachers see daily. The situation is appalling and getting so much worse. We call on the Government to urgently extend eligibility for free school meals to all families receiving universal credit, so that support reaches the kids who need it most. The system is ready, we can implement this tomorrow.

“Schools are again on the front line, seeing the impact of more families unable to afford nutritious food. We have a free school meal system that has worked for over a hundred years to help ensure kids don’t miss out on learning due to hunger, but today England has the most restrictive criteria to access free school meals of the four nations. In addition to tackling hunger, we know that if children eat a good school lunch, their wellbeing, attainment and behaviour all improve. School meals are crucial to education.  Change is needed now.”

The Survation polling also found that: 

  • 73% of primary school teachers said children bring packed lunches with insufficient amounts of food
  • 23% said children skip lunch due to poverty
  • Of the children coming to school hungry, 88% of teachers said the pupils showed excessive tiredness at school.
  • 84% said the children were easily distracted in class
  • 74% said they showed disruptive behaviour
  • 54% said the children were anxious

Schools are having to step in and help families struggling with the cost of living crisis, subsidising meals from their own budgets.

Lisa Williams, Head Teacher at Rushey Green Primary School, said: “I’ve never known anything like this during my career, it is getting worse. Children are coming to school hungry and we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. If they’re hungry, they can’t concentrate so our resources are worthless, but if the budget goes on school food, the resources suffer.

“With pack lunches, some children have bread with no filling or just a slice of bread. We see cheap snacks that are low on nutrition. As we get towards the end of the week or month and the money runs out at home, it often gets worse. It’s heart-breaking. Parents are struggling. This isn’t about not wanting to feed their children, it’s about not being able to afford nutritious choices.”

At Rushey Green, they make all food from scratch and are able to use surplus produce to ensure there is enough to go around, but for School Head Chef Luke Kemsley, who had free school meals himself as a child, change is needed to support schools and families. 

Luke said: “Some children don’t have enough food in their packed lunch box but they pretend otherwise or they’ll stay away from the dining hall because they’re embarrassed. We’ll seek them out and ensure they eat. 


“I look back and feel fortunate to have had free school meals myself. I grew up in South East London, with a single mother, and as a family we really didn’t have much money, but I did get food at school. I don’t know where I’d have been without it. We all know that being hungry impacts learning and had I been hungry daily, like lots of children are now, I would not have reached my potential.” 

Teachers surveyed were asked if there were any additional details/experiences which they wanted to share regarding child hunger and school food.

Responses included:

  • Children are often unwell due to the lack of nutrients in their food at home.
  • It’s often the children whose parents just miss the cut off for financial help who suffer the most
  • …when I did work in state schools I found that children were either stealing food from others or eating things such as rubbers to have something in their tummies. Too many families live on the poverty line. 
  • Children have stolen snacks from other children because they’re hungry and it’s not fair that they’re then tarnished with being a thief by other children when their basic needs should be met.
  • It’s so prevalent and it’s a disaster. Children don’t have any meals at home. I’m buying food for them myself.
  • It is striking to see that the children come in hungry and the impact this has. They are unable to concentrate, are very short tempered and emotional. Schools have a very limited budget so you see staff spending their own money to have snacks in class available for these children
  • It is hard to teach hungry children
  • The kids are so much happier when they have eaten
  • Children deserve to be fed because food helps them thrive 

To find out more about the Feed The Future campaign, visit: Take action and Write to Your MP –




Notes to editors: 

*Source: Conducted by Survation on behalf of Chefs in Schools

Methodology: Online interviews of Primary School teachers in England.

Fieldwork: 26-27 August 2022

Sample size: 527

For interviews or more information, contact: 

Kath Kay –

Danielle Glavin –

About Chefs in Schools: