A Conservative manifesto pledge to scrap 'universal' free school lunches could see as many as 900,000 children from low-income families lose their entitlement to claim the midday meal, a leading think tank has warned.
According to analysis carried out by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) for The Observer newspaper, stopping the free hot meals being given as standard to all infants aged four to seven could lead to 100,000 children from families living in relative poverty and 667,000 children from "ordinary working families" being affected.
The move has sparked taunts of "May, the meals snatcher" - reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher's infamous cancelling of free school milk.
The Conservative party does not believe "a free school lunch for every child in the first three years of primary school is a sensible use of public money”. By getting rid of the scheme, the Tory manifesto claims that English schools will receive a £4 billion injection.
The move will cost families around £440 a year for each child affected and is thought likely to save around £650 million a year, according to the EPI research.
Children from poorer families will continue to get free breakfast and free hot lunches throughout their education.
The proposed policy has received widespread criticism, most notably from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver who has labelled the plan as a “disgrace”. The TV star and campaigner said children did better at school after a "decent lunch" and said the policy would undermine teachers.
"We've already seen the childhood obesity strategy ripped to shreds, now Theresa May and her Government have decided to remove free school lunches from millions of primary children.
"This is a disgrace. It's a fact that children perform better after eating a decent lunch.
"This move shows a complete lack of understanding of all the data that's been shared and puts our future generations at huge risk, as well as further undermining our teachers who benefit from well-fed kids.
"What are they going to snatch back next?"
The Conservative manifesto has promised that some of the money saved by ending universal free school lunches for infants in England would be used to provide all primary-aged children with free breakfasts. The Tories say the evidence shows that a free school breakfast is as effective at helping children learn as a hot meal at lunch. It would cost about £60m a year - a tenth of what free lunches currently cost taxpayers.
The free school meal policy was a flagship Liberal Democrat programme during the 2010-2015 coalition and the party has condemned the decision to scrap it. Lib Dem education spokeswoman Sarah Olney said: "Margaret Thatcher was known as the milk snatcher. Theresa May will go down as the lunch snatcher."
Theresa May has been under fire over schools funding, with the amount of money being put into the system failing to keep pace with inflation and rising pupil numbers.