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The Lib Dems don't go far enough – we need free meals for all school children, campaigners say

'We urge all parties to make universal free school meal provision a top priority to invest in the health and futures of our young people'

Stock image of children eating out of lunchboxes to illustrate an article about free school meals

Lib Dems promise to extend free school meals to all primary school children (Katerina Holmes/Pexels)

The Liberal Democrats have promised to extend free school meals to all primary school children, challenging Labour to match the pledge made by party leader Ed Davey. 

The Lib Dem leader announced the policy on Friday (31 May), which would ensure all primary school children have access to free school meals – beginning with those in poverty, estimated to be 4.2 million children in the UK. 

Currently, the government only provides free meals for children in reception, year one and year two, and to children who meet family income conditions in year three and above. 

The Child Poverty Action group estimates that 900,000 children living in poverty in England miss out on free school meals, a figure which Davey said should make Conservative MPs “hang their heads in shame”. 

“Across the country, I hear heartbreaking stories of children going to school with empty packed lunch boxes as parents struggle to cover even the basic costs,” Davey said in a statement, adding that the pledge would “transform the future for millions of children”. 

“Children cannot be expected to learn on empty stomachs with no guarantee of a hot meal when they get home.”

Davey added in an interview with the Guardian that the case for free school meals for primary-aged children is “overwhelming”. 

“We believe in social justice… If we can get some Liberal Democrat MPs in the next parliament, many more of them, these are the things we’ll provide for.”

The £500m cost of the promise would be covered by introducing a 4% share buyback tax, which the party estimates would raise £1.4bn. 

The Liberal Democrats’ pledge on school meals is mirrored in the Big Issue’s Blueprint for Change, a call for whichever party that comes out on top at the general election on 4 July to introduce policies to help those living in poverty in the UK. 

Each of the Big Issue’s calls comes under one of the five poverty prevention pillars we believe will help dismantle poverty and change lives through enterprise – housing, health and wellbeing, learning and employment, financial and digital inclusion, and environment and community.

The Blueprint for Change goes one step further than Ed Davey’s pledge, however. We’re calling on politicians to provide universal free school meals to all school-age children, including outside of term time. As well as providing a lifeline to children in poverty, research has found that expanding free school meals could generate billions for the economy across health, education and social sectors. 

Big Issue is demanding an end to poverty this general election. Will you sign our open letter to party leaders?

‘Parties must invest in the health and futures of young people’

While child poverty charities have welcomed the Lib Dems’ policy proposal, many have claimed it does not go far enough, and free school meals should cover all ages. 

“The Childhood Trust welcomes the Liberal Democrats’ proposal for free primary school meals,” Laurence Guinness, CEO of The Childhood Trust told Big Issue. 

“While this is progressive, with child poverty levels at an 11-year high, it needs to be for all school children, not just primary aged pupils. 

“Ensuring all children receive proper nutrition throughout their education supports children to focus on learning and developing instead of going hungry and failing academically, with disastrous life consequences. 

“We urge all parties to make universal free school meal provision a top priority to invest in the health and futures of our young people.”

Commenting on the free school meals pledge, Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The NEU welcomes this commitment from the Liberal Democrats to extend free school meals to all primary children. There is a growing political consensus about the benefits of universal free school meals – we have seen Labour’s London mayor, the Welsh Labour government and the SNP in Scotland all take a lead on the matter.

“The NEU is calling on all political parties to commit likewise in their election manifestos.

“A hot, healthy school dinner helps children concentrate better in class and thrive in school. It removes the stigma from families who need this vital support and helps foster strong community relationships in the dinner hall – and it has taken welcome pressure off parents who are trying to make ends meet. It is about time that all children across England have access to a free school meal.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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