13/06/2012 13:11 BST | Updated 30/07/2012 11:34 BST

Pupils Missing Lunch To 'Save Money': Why Free School Meals Are So Important

Children studying at college are skipping lunch as they can't afford to buy it and are not being provided with the free school meals they are entitled to, it has emerged.

David Blunkett's debate on the funding anomaly which has left thousands of poor teenagers missing out on free lunches brought the issue into the public eye on Wednesday. The "unfair and discriminatory" practice means youngsters who have chosen to pursue further education at a college are being denied the free food they would have been allocated if they had continued at school.

One student, Stefanie Pearson, is studying performing arts at Sheffield College. The 18-year-old lives alone in rented accommodation and lives off income support.

She has not lived with her parents since she was 11 years old and was looked after by carers but became homeless between February and May 2011. She slept on a relative's two-seater settee during that time, and travelled a three-hour return trip on two buses to get to college. After that, she moved into a hostel for a year. Stefanie now lives in rented accommodation, closer to her college campus.

Pearson used to receive free school meals while she was at school but now she is attending college, she has to fork out for her own food.

"I struggle to make ends meet, especially as I live on my own and have to pay for everything myself," she says. "There are a lot of times when I don't buy any food. I will often skip lunch and sometimes it will be late in the day before I eat.

"It costs up to £5 to buy a lunch at college, and I can't afford that. Not eating does make me feel tired.

"Sometimes, I find myself sitting down, on what is a very active course, when I should be up on my feet and ready to go."

But Pearson adds going to college takes her mind off her financial worries and allows her to be "something different".

"I've come to college to change my life and make something of myself.

"Students such as myself don't choose to be in this situation, and there is a certain stigma about it."

One of Sheffield College's four campuses has even set up a food bank to ensure students are discretely able to collect food, donated by college staff, and take home.

But Heather MacDonald, chief executive at the college in South Yorkshire, says the cases are "just the tip of the iceberg".

"They reflect a broader issue of young people in poverty struggling to afford to participate in their education when it is absolutely critical, so they can improve their qualifications and prospects and escape this financial trap.

"We know of students walking four miles to college and back home because they can't afford the bus, and some not able to pay for course equipment. Others have missed out on attending university interviews because they cannot afford the travel fares."

Jane*, also 18, says she feels guilty taking food from home for lunch as her mother is financially struggling. "It's really hard to concentrate when your stomach's rumbling and you're starting to get headaches," she admits.

"But it's not just me. I think there are a lot of students who are struggling financially, and it's really hard for them. Sometimes they don't eat, and sit around saying how hungry they are."

MacDonald adds students are worrying about being able to afford to eat, rather than focusing on their studies. "The system needs to be more flexible.

"Much more needs to be done to stop some of our most vulnerable young people, who most need our support, falling through the net."

*Jane's name has been changed at her request.