More Lincolnshire pupils are receiving free school meals than ever before, figures show, as campaigners argue the Government should widen the eligibility criteria amidst the cost-of-living crisis.
And the Labour party claims that working families nationwide are suffering while the Government is distracted by the Conservative leadership election.
Department for Education figures show 24,902 children in Lincolnshire were eligible for free school meals in January – 22.9% of all state school pupils in the area.
This was up from 20.3% the year before, and the highest proportion since comparable records began in 2015-16.
In pupil referral units, the rate was 55.1% in 2021-22 – the highest of all types of state education which had at least 100 pupils.
This was compared to 0.4% in nursery schools.
Across England, 22.5% of pupils (around 1.9 million children) are currently eligible for free school meals – up from 20.8%, and also a record high.
This varied between just 9% in Wokingham, in the South East, but rose as high as 41.1% in Islington, in London.
In a debate in Parliament on Tuesday (July 12), Labour called for the scheme to be extended to all children in families receiving Universal Credit or equivalent benefits.
Labour's shadow schools minister Stephen Morgan said the cost-of-living crisis was being worsened by "chaotic Conservative government".
He added: “While the Conservatives are distracted by fighting amongst themselves, the perfect storm of soaring food costs, Tory tax hikes and inadequate funding continue to take their toll on families and deepen existing inequalities.
“Labour would be providing breakfast clubs for every child, making sure every child has the best start to the day and the best start to life."
The Association of School and College Leaders said it is "shocking" that one of the world's wealthiest economies saw such a steep rise in the number of youngsters on free school meals this year.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the ASCL, added: “Even more shocking is the fact that current eligibility does not even capture all the children who need help.
"Free school meal eligibility now applies to 22.5% of pupils, but we know that the level of child poverty is about 30%."
New research conducted by Loughborough University on behalf of the End Child Poverty Coalition reveals 29% of English children were living in relative poverty in 2020-21, though this was down from 30% the year before and first fall in a decade.
The ECPC said it is likely due to Government measures during the pandemic, such as temporarily increasing universal credit by £20 a week.
The DfE figures also show that white pupils with Traveller of Irish heritage ethnicity were the most likely to get free school meals across England – 63% of all of those in state schools.
In Lincolnshire, the highest rates were among children of white Gypsy-Roma ethnicity – 54.5%.
Ethnicities with fewer than 100 pupils have been removed.
A Government spokeswoman said it is providing more than £37 billion to help families with rising costs, and will continue to keep eligibility under review.