More than 20 councils have called in sheriff officers to retrieve lunch debts accrued by hungry school pupils for as little as £10.
Youngsters from low-income families have reportedly “returned their lunch money to parents in order to pay for household bills rather than eat for the remainder of their day,” according to new research.
Friends have then been forced to put their hands in their pockets and cover food costs amid an increase in “hidden hunger”.
A study by Aberlour Child Care Trust in conjunction with Heriot Watt University found an estimated £1,032,500 was owed to local authorities across the country by parents and children struggling amid the cost of living crisis.
However, it also identified councils taking extreme measures to reclaim miniscule sums – including sending sheriff’s officers to pursue outstanding charges.
Researchers warned the debt was just the “tip of the iceberg” for families already struggling with soaring bills.
One local authority was found to actively “stigmatise” pupils requesting vouchers for meals in order to bridge the gap between payments by – making them verbally ask the school office in order to “encourage them to have funds on their account”.
A similar freedom of information request found others provide secondary school students with free meals on a “discretionary” basis – meaning certain pupils may not have been given food if the person in the office opts against distributing a voucher.
In a focus group organised by the Poverty and Inequality Commission, one student said: “In my friend group, I’d say about half of them can’t eat food when we go out, so you see people buying food for their friends.
“They come to lunch with me even though they’re not getting anything. We go to Greggs and, because I’ve got like £3 or £3.50 to spend, I’ll get two Yum Yums and a sausage roll and I’ll give them the Yum Yums, just because they don’t get any food anyway.”
Another participant told researchers: “I know a good few people who don’t actually get lunch because they feel like they’re using the money their parents could be using for something better. They feel responsible.”
Professor Morag Treanor, from the University’s Institute of Social Policy, Housing and Equalities Research, said the impact of hunger on education would be “catastrophic” unless the Scottish Government took “immediate action”.
She added: “The debt highlighted through our research is, we believe, just the tip of the iceberg as the number of families struggling to pay for a school meal in Scotland continues to soar.
“We have unquantified levels of hidden hunger in secondary schools.
“This impact of children going hungry has a catastrophic impact on their health, wellbeing and educational attainment.”
Children in the primary one to primary five-year groups automatically qualify for free school meals regardless of household income, but those above that do not.
Income thresholds for free meal eligibility have risen by less than 4% in the decade between April 2011 and 2021.
Just seven of the 29 Scottish councils who responded to FOI requests from the study said they did not refer school meal debt to collection agents.
The research found “the sums of debt reached before action is taken can be as low as £10 and as high as £100, depending on the local authority.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Cost of living rises are putting a huge strain on some families and they are facing unforeseen challenges.
“We will continue to work with our partners in local authorities to plan for the expansion of free school meal provision.
“Councils have the power to make discretionary offers of free school meals to families, where they are experiencing financial hardship due to exceptional circumstances, who do not meet the regular eligibility criteria.
“We would also urge local authorities to do all they can to resolve any payment issues.”