03/04/2013 13:56 BST | Updated 03/06/2013 06:12 BST

Time to Make Free School Meals Available to All UK Children in Poverty

Millions of children and families across Britain are living in poverty. But, in England alone, more than half of the 2.2 million school children in poverty are not getting a free school meal.

Yet free school meals are an effective way to help move children out of poverty. The Children's Society estimates that, if the government made them available to all children in poverty, 100,000 of these children would be lifted out of poverty straight away.

Under the current criteria, however, children may only get free school meals if their parents are either not working, or if they work no more than a given number of hours. For a single parent this is less than 16 hours a week and 24 hours for couples - regardless of how little they earn.

The majority of children living in poverty - six in 10 - are in low-income working households and many are not getting the support they need to help improve their children's lives.

We see from our work with families up and down the country that many parents are having to face tough choices between whether they can heat their homes or put food on the table.

Kibria (not her real name) is one such parent. A single mum with three teenage daughters, she works 21-hours a week as a cleaner. Managing on just £330 a week, as a family of four, this puts them below the poverty line .

Despite this, because Kibria works more than eligibility permits, she is not entitled to this crucial form of support.

"Day to day life is very hard. It is a struggle to provide the uniforms the children need because they grow so quickly. I can't just go out to shop to buy anything I need. Food, bills, necessities - everything is expensive now," she said. "I want the children to have them [free school meals] so they could get more - not just bread," she reveals.

We know that 700,000 children in poverty across England are not entitled to free school meals, mainly because their parents are working. In order to provide MPs with a clear picture of children's situation in their area, The Children's Society has just produced the first breakdown by constituency and region showing the numbers of children living in poverty who are not getting free school meals.

We found that, in four out of 10 constituencies, over half these children are not getting this vital benefit. And in some areas more than two-thirds of children in poverty are missing out on free school meals. Of England's 533 constituencies, only 22 have fewer than 10% of children in poverty missing out on free school meals. The Children's Society's new Fair and Square map details the full picture.

Free school meals are a crucial support. For some children they may be the only proper meal they get. In a survey of teachers across the country, nearly half told The Children's Society that they often saw children going hungry in school .

Crucially, free school meals also make a significant difference to families' budgets. A school meal is worth on average £10 a child each week. For a family with three children this totals £1,110 a year - an amount many cannot afford.

As Kibria describes: "I have had to reduce the amount of meat we eat compared to before. Now, we can only afford to eat soup and vegetables most days. I want to be able to give my children more than just the basics but can't afford to."

It is unacceptable that so many of these children in low-income working families cannot get free school meals. Which is why The Children's Society's Fair and Square campaign is calling on the public to urge their MPs to call on the government to make free school meals available to all children in poverty.

The government is reconsidering which children will be entitled to get free school meals when it introduces its new welfare system under Universal Credit in October. The opportunity to make sure that all children living in poverty can get this vital support is too important to miss.