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Children living in poverty are “eating rubbers” or “pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox” because they cannot access free school meals, it has been claimed in a Westminster Hall debate.

The claims came in debate last Tuesday, which heard calls for more children to be given access to free school meals to reduce the nearly one million in England who are not eligible despite living in poverty. 

Labour MP Lyn Brown said 900,000 children in England living in poverty were not eligible, citing data from the Child Povery Action Group.

The debate heard calls to reconsider the low-income threshold of £7,400 per household for children to access free school meals. 

“I continue to believe that our universal, free school meal offer is very important for child welfare,” said Brown. “In our communities, we have so many families enduring hardship due to [the cost of living crisis], and over the past years this has increased child hunger and stress.”

Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham Munira Wilson, who secured the debate, said there was a trend of children hiding their situation by “pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox”, which “has to stop”.

“A child coming into school having not eaten anything since lunch the day before, so hungry that they are eating rubbers at school; and a child hiding in the playground because they do not think they can get a meal – all stories from schools in England today,” Wilson said.

A spokesperson for the charity School Food Matters said: “We believe every child, no matter their circumstances, should have access to a hot, healthy meal at school, and that’s why we are calling on the government to prioritise universal free school meals.”