Marcus Rashford’s call to extend free schools meals to more of Britain’s poorest children has been backed by the government’s own review into feeding the nation .
Another 1.5 million pupils between the ages of seven and 16 should be entitled to free school meals, according to the National Food Strategy.
The review, led by Leon restaurant founder Henry Dimbleby, recommends extending the free school meals programme to every child from a household claiming Universal Credit.
Currently only children whose parents earn less than £7,400 a year are eligible.
The report also calls for an expansion of the holiday activity and food programme to all areas in England, which would reach an extra 1.1 million children at a cost of £200m a year.
It comes after England star Marcus Rashford lobbied ministers to continue providing free meals for underprivileged pupils during the school holidays.
He went on to help raise £20m – the equivalent of 3.9 million meals – for the UK’s most vulnerable youngsters during the coronavirus pandemic, after teaming up with food waste charity FareShare.
Mr Dimbleby’s report also calls for an increase in value of the government’s Healthy Start voucher scheme to £4.25 and wants it extended to pregnant women and households with children under four that claim Universal Credit.
The vouchers, which can be spent on vitamins, fruit, vegetables and milk, would benefit a further 290,000 pregnant women and under-fours if the recommendations are adopted.
Mr Dimbleby said the chief executives of Waitrose and the Co-op have already agreed to supplement the vouchers with extra free fruit and vegetables.
His report warned that if action is not taken soon, poorer children risk being “left behind”.
It says: “One of the miserable legacies of COVID-19 is likely to be a dramatic increase in unemployment and poverty, and therefore hunger.
“The effects of hunger on young bodies (and minds) are serious and long-lasting, and exacerbate social inequalities.
“Children who are hungry at school struggle to concentrate, perform poorly, and have worse attendance records.”
It would cost £670m a year to provide meals for an extra 1.5 million children, the report said.
Mr Dimbleby concluded by urging the government to implement his recommendations quickly.
“In doing so, it will improve the health of the nation and be a necessary pillar of its ambition to level up society,” he said.