More than £1 million is owed by thousands of Scottish families unable to pay for school meals, a charity has revealed. 

Bosses at Aberlour also warned they had received reports that some pupils are not eating and instead returning their lunch money so parents can cover household bills. They stressed that research commissioned by them had highlighted a “worrying” increase in hidden hunger.

The study was conducted by Professor Morag Treanor from the Institute of Social Policy, Housing, Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University. She said school meal debt was "just the tip of the iceberg" for families.

Currently, children in P1-5 receive universal free school meals. This means that debt amounting to £1,032,500 is owed by struggling families with children in the final years of primary school.

A contributing factor is that income thresholds for free school meal eligibility have barely risen in the past twenty years, resulting in many working families being gradually excluded.

The exact number of learners affected by hidden hunger in secondary schools is not known. However, evidence suggests that S1-6 pupils without money in their school meal account are choosing to avoid stigma, shame and debt, and missing out on food.

READ MORE: School meals should be free for all pupils, says STUC

Fears have been fuelled by young people who spoke to Aberlour. They warned that friends who were ineligible for free school meals had not been eating or were returning lunch money to parents for more pressing bills. One young person said: “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.”

Another added: “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…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.”

The research also underlines inconsistencies between local authorities. In some cases children are being denied access to meals, with debt carried over from primary into secondary school.

Martin Canavan, head of policy and participation at Aberlour, said no child should go hungry in a country as rich as Scotland. He added: “We’re very concerned about hidden school hunger and believe there are likely significant numbers of children going hungry in school. In the last ten years we’ve seen child poverty rise significantly yet far fewer families are eligible for free school meals now than they were when the thresholds were introduced 20 years ago.

“The issue of school hunger and significant numbers of children going hungry every single day means we are failing as a country to protect children’s human rights – specifically the right to food.

“We are calling on Scottish Government to maximise eligibility for free school meals for low income working families with immediate effect. This will ensure more families receive this entitlement, reduce financial hardship, help end school meal debt and reduce the likelihood of hunger in schools.”

HeraldScotland: Ross Greer of the Scottish Greens said councils should cancel school meal debt.Ross Greer of the Scottish Greens said councils should cancel school meal debt.

Professor Treanor said: “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. The impact of children going hungry has a catastrophic impact on their health, wellbeing and educational attainment. The lack of access to free school meals in the later years of primary and in secondary schools is harmful to both children and families. With the current cost of living crisis, we expect this to worsen without immediate action.  

“We welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment that it will continue to work with local authorities to plan for the expansion of free school meal provision, but we urge immediate action.

"With the summer holidays coming up, many families will struggle to find an additional five meals a week to feed their children. We need to work together quickly to end food poverty in Scotland.”

The Scottish Greens – whose own data from earlier this year showed children and families had accrued debts of more than £1m – believe councils should cancel any money owed for unpaid school meals.

Ross Greer, the party's education spokesperson, said previously: “Children can’t get a good education if they’re hungry at school.

“With the cost of living crisis putting huge pressure on family finances, this is the right time to write off all outstanding school meal debt. Pursuing the debt is causing stress and embarrassment for pupils and their families, but I’ve also spoken to school staff who hate being put in the position of asking pupils for money they know the family does not have."

READ MORE: School dinner debt to councils 'should be written off'

His remarks were echoed by leaders at the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), who said in the run-up to May’s council election that school meals should be free for all. “There’s a material cost-of-living crisis going on throughout the country, impacting thousands and embedding poverty within our communities,” said Fiona Steele, STUC Women’s Committee Chair. “Accelerating the rollout of universal school meals to all primary school pupils is the bare minimum we need from the Scottish Government. Our ‘Food for Thought’ campaign wants this extended to all pupils – primary and secondary – bringing an end to pupil hunger and breaking the stigma around school meals.

“We believe that hunger knows no age boundaries. If the Scottish Government is truly committed to reducing child poverty and enshrining the rights of the child into law – expanding universal free school meals is a critical component to make this a reality.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman acknowledged that cost of living pressures were putting "huge strain" on families. She added: “Pupils in primary one to five at publicly funded schools already benefit from universal free school lunches during term time, as well as eligible pupils within other age groups, saving families on average £400 per child per year.

“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.”

A spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) said: “Scotland’s councils offer a range of support for children and families who are struggling. This role was highlighted throughout Covid and Councils are now doing as much as they possibly can in terms of supporting families to address the cost of living crisis. However, councils are operating under serious financial constraints and this is only going to get worse given the Scottish Government’s resource spending review announced last week, showing spending plans for the next four years.”