Ten years ago, Liberal Democrats in Government announced the introduction of Universal Infant Free School Meals, saving parents of children in the first three years of school about £400 a year.
I was proud to feature in a Channel 4 mini documentary about the policy which was filmed at a school in Canford Heath. I enjoyed a turkey dinner with children on bright blue and yellow plastic plates and met staff providing the food and supporting the children’s social lunch.
The policy worked because it was planned and funded, including cash for schools to refit non-working kitchens and the budget to fund a two-course cooked meal. Over the years, school budgets have not kept up with inflation and schools are in the dreadful position of taking money from their base budget or reducing portion sizes to make ends meet. Last month, the Mayor of London announced that he would be providing free meals for all primary school children in the city – for just one year. On the surface this sounds great – who would not want to see children fed for free – especially as someone who has long supported the scheme for infants?
But as usual this approach is far too simplistic. Funding the food is only part of the cost – I have not seen any money promised to extend kitchens, there is already a staffing crisis in schools and one-year contracts are notoriously difficult to fulfil. Many schools will need to buy in services from external contractors, but this market is shrinking, and some contractors have faced criticism for poor nutritious value.
Also, why stop at primary school? Older children cost far more to feed. As a mum of four young people aged 15 to 21, I confirm that teenagers can empty your cupboards within 24 hours of a food shop – so surely the impact on struggling families would be greater by helping them? And if we cannot support all children, surely, we should be targeting the money where the need is the greatest.
Free School Meals are currently available to families on the very lowest incomes. Most families who receive Universal Credit do not qualify, so extending it to everyone receiving such benefits – and auto enrolling them so families do not feel any stigma – would benefit an extra 800,000 children living in poverty. Children guaranteed a decent meal every day, regardless of which school phase they are in.
Child poverty and hunger can have wide-ranging negative effects on children. There is growing evidence that free school meals can support improved diets and reduce obesity levels, lead to higher attendance levels and enhanced concentration.
Liberal Democrats in Government introduced free school meals for infants because we believe that children should have the best possible start in life. I still believe that was right and it should continue now we have the facilities in place, but we should extend the offer to all the vulnerable children in society and avoid harrowing stories of parents going without a meal so their children can eat.
Lib Dem Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Mid Dorset & North Poole