A MOTHER who was late paying for her children’s school meals was threatened with a debt collection agency because she owed £32.

The mother-of-four has told of her anger after receiving the letter from the school office.

She admits she has found it difficult to keep up with payments for school meals and was told if she did not pay the money she owed, then the debt would be passed on.

She said: “I was fuming. I wrote them a strongly worded letter pointing out that we are in the middle of a global crisis.

“You know you owe it, but couldn’t they just wait until the end of the month when my husband gets paid?

“The head rang and apologised.

“She said she didn’t mean it to be like that, but it’s really distressing to get a letter saying that if you don’t pay, they’ll forward it to a debt collecting agency.”

The woman, who has four children aged eight, nine, 12 and 16, has to spend around £200 per month on school meals, which works out at 13 per cent of the family budget.

She said: “We don’t qualify for Universal Credit because my husband works and so the children don’t get free school meals. We get by, but the dinners situation is quite expensive.

“It would make a massive difference if the Government changed the rules on free school meals.

“It would be one less thing to worry about.”

The woman said her youngest child was in year two during the coronavirus outbreak and would normally have qualified for free school meals then, but she did not even vouchers.

The mother said: “Feeding four children during lockdown was expensive – they were just going backwards and forwards to the fridge.

“With my husband being paid monthly, you owe, you owe, you owe.

“Extending free school meals would just take the pressure off.”

The mother's story comes as a report reveals that more than 35,000 pupils in the North-East who live below the poverty line do not qualify for free school meals under current legislation.

The new report, The Cost of Missing Lunchtime, reveals one in four children from poorer families in the region are not entitled to a free, nutritious daily meal at school.

The data also highlights another 4,000 North East pupils, living in families with no recourse to public funds, due to their immigration status, may also miss out if the temporary extension of school meals to these households is not made permanent.

Luke Bramhall, from Children North-East, which carried out the study with the Child Poverty Action Group and the North East Child Poverty Commission, said: “It is clearly not right that many thousands of primary and secondary pupils in our region are being deprived of vital nutrition.

“We believe the current eligibility threshold for free school meals is too low so we are calling on the Government to restore the previous eligibility threshold, which included all families on Universal Credit.

“This should be extended to all those on equivalent benefits.

“Furthermore, we want to see the temporary extension of free school meals eligibility to be made permanent for those households with no recourse to public funds.”

In 2013 the Government introduced a temporary measure, making all families in receipt of Universal Credit eligible for free school meals.

This was designed to protect families from losing out on entitlements during the initial stages of the roll-out.

Since April 2018 families have had to have an income less than £7,400 to be eligible.

Children North East, CPAG and the NECPC say this has led to many pupils who are living in poverty falling through the free school meals net.

The report says poorer children are not only missing out on nutrition, but are also being deprived of extra help in the classroom as free school meals take-up is directly linked to Pupil Premium funding.

Alison Garnham, chief executive of CPAG said: “We know that free school meals help struggling families to stay afloat, as well as improve the health and educational outcomes of their children.

“But many across the North-East are missing out, exposing children to hardship.

“Government must step up urgently and expand eligibility for free school meals to make sure no kid goes hungry.

“Schools and local authorities can also play an important role by making sure families who are already eligible take up free school meals: this has benefits for eligible children but also increases school funding which helps all pupils.”

The three organisations, Children North East, Child Poverty Action Group and the North-East Child Poverty Commission, have calculated it would cost £38.1m to expand free school meals to all households in the North-East in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefits, on top of the current status quo.

Amanda Bailey, director of the NECPC, said this is cost effective: “Research shows that free school meals have a number of proven benefits and are an effective anti-child poverty measure.

“They can help boost children’s learning and attainment as well as supporting their health through providing a balanced meal each day.

“Children also benefit from the social experience of sitting down together, eating the same food and sharing the dining hall experience. For families, free school meal entitlement can relieve pressures on household budgets and free up money for other living costs.

“Expanding free school meals to more children can also help to tackle inequalities by decreasing the number of children in low income families who miss out, and it can reduce stigma associated with the entitlement.”

Recommendations in the report, which is being sent to North-East MPs, local authorities and schools, include:

· Local authorities should review their free school meal policies, processes and practices to ensure they are maximising the number of families taking up their free school meal entitlement. Data suggests the current take-up rate of free school meals in the North East is 89 per cent (116,000 eligible pupils with only 103,000 claiming).

· Local authorities should make information about free school meals easily accessible, and directly linked to Covid-response pages/other financial inclusion information on their websites.

· Schools should identify and address any existing policies or practices that either prevent pupils taking up their free school meal entitlement or further disadvantage them.

· Local authorities and schools should offer child poverty training to school staff to help increase awareness of the issue and help schools identify practical ways they can increase support to families who might be struggling.

Neville Harrison, headteacher of St Bede’s in Lanchester, which was not the school which issued the letter to the struggling mother, said: “It is great that these organisations are keeping the free school meals debate in the public domain.

“The more MPs, local authorities and schools can discuss this matter, the better the outcomes for the children and families in need.”

A Government spokesperson said there are currently around 1.6 million pupils who are entitled to free school meals.

She said: "During the pandemic we have temporarily extended eligibility to include some groups who have no recourse to public funds, which will remain in place while we consider further.

“We have also committed to extending the Breakfast Clubs programme for disadvantaged pupils over the next two years, and - outside of term-time - we have expanded our Holiday Activities and Food Programme to every local authority in England this year.

"The Covid Local Support Grant, an extension of the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, will continue to support vulnerable families.”