Free school meals for all would generate billions for the economy. Here's why
Britain is in the midst of a child hunger epidemic. Providing free meals for all is the first step towards ensuring future generations can thrive. And there are long-term benefits for the country as a whole
Millions of children are going hungry in the UK. Teachers are seeing kids stealing food from their classmates, eating rubbers because they are so hungry and taking school lunches home to feed their younger siblings. The cost of living crisis is making the situation far worse, with food prices soaring at dangerously high rates and paltry wages failing to keep up.
Free school meals are a lifeline, guaranteeing a hot and nutritious meal to kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks. But the stigma around the scheme means disadvantaged children are made to feel different from their peers, and the eligibility criteria is so strict in parts of the country that hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty get no support.
So what is the solution? Hundreds of charities, medical bodies, politicians, faith leaders and celebrities are backing a National Education Union (NEU) campaign to get the government to introduce free school meals for all primary school children. They are out to prove that it will go a long way to ending child hunger and boosting the economy in the long term.
“Child hunger is an epidemic in our schools,” the open letter to Rishi Sunak says. “Last year, four million children experienced food insecurity – not having access to nutritious and balanced meals, or even having to skip meals entirely.
“We are living through the greatest cost of living crisis in a generation, and too many families with young children are being pulled into poverty. Free school meals for every child will put money back in parents’ pockets. That’s money they can use to pay for other essentials for their children, from heating and food at home to hobbies and after-school clubs.”
A total of 800,000 children in England are living in poverty but are not eligible for free school meals, according to research from the Food Foundation. For the first three years of school, every child in England gets a hot dinner, but millions of children as young as seven miss out on a healthy meal at school.
If a family earns more than £7,400 a year between them after tax and not including universal credit, their children will not be eligible for free school meals. This threshold was introduced in 2018 and it has not changed since, despite soaring inflation rates.
“Too many children aren’t getting the support they need to thrive at school,” says Kevin Courtney, joint secretary at the NEU. “The cost of living crisis is compounding this, but it is the government’s political and economic decisions that have made millions of families from a range of backgrounds hundreds of pounds worse off than last year.”
Free school meals for all would bring England in line with other parts of the UK. Scotland has already committed to offering free school meals for all primary school children in a phased approach. So far, all children in primary one to five can get a meal. Wales has also promised free school meals to all primary school pupils by 2024.
And London’s mayor Sadiq Khan has announced free meals will be provided in all primary schools across London for the next academic year. Northern Ireland’s eligibility threshold is almost twice that of England’s at £14,000.
“Why is the rest of the country missing out?” asks Mari Burton, national campaign manager at the NEU. “We believe children shouldn’t be growing up in a postcode lottery. It shouldn’t be a case of if you’ve been born in a particular area, you get free school dinner and you’ll have your life chances improved exponentially.”
There are millions of kids in the UK who go to sleep hungry at night and are learning on an empty stomach
Zarah Sultana, MP
The NEU has organised a week of action that started on 24 June, in which it is delivering the open letter to Sunak signed by hundreds of organisations including Big Issue, celebrities such as broadcasting legend Gary Lineker, and politicians like Labour MP Zarah Sultana.
Sultana introduced a Free School Meals for All Bill in Parliament last year. “Before the cost of living crisis, it was important,” she previously told The Big Issue. “Now, it is an urgent demand. There are millions of kids in the UK who go to sleep hungry at night and are learning on an empty stomach.”
But the bill’s second reading has been blocked twice now. This week of action is the final push after an academic year of campaigning to get Sunak and his cabinet to listen to their demands.
“This is the last chance before Parliament goes into recess for them to do something actively about this,” says Burton. “When schools are out, there’s a huge number of children who have got six weeks of real uncertainty about where the next dinner is coming from.”
Critics argue that this all comes at a cost. Extending free school meals to all primary state school pupils in England would cost an additional £1 billion a year in the longer term, according to the IFS. That is enough to give every teacher in the UK a £2,000 pay rise.
But research shows that expanding free school meals could actually generate billions for the economy across health, education and social sectors.
Lord John Bird, the founder of The Big Issue who faced hunger and malnutrition as a child, says: “Removing daytime food from the poverty equation that can be partly addressed by free school meals is a sure social and economic winner for us all.
“It increases the chance that all children flourish at their education because they are not studying on an empty stomach. Let us set our minds to increasing all children’s futures by securing this simple and rewarding government support.”
Sultana has suggested the expansion of free school meals should be funded by ending the charitable status of elite private schools in the UK. This would generate £1.7bn in public funds, according to Labour.
But the prime minister, who went to prestigious Winchester College, dismissed removing charitable tax breaks when pressed by Labour leader Keir Starmer. Sunak said in Parliament: “Whenever he attacks me about where I went to school, he is attacking the hard-working aspiration of millions of people in this country. He’s attacking people like my parents.”
Other campaigners have called for the scheme to be extended to all children in families receiving universal credit, of which the Institute for Fiscal studies estimates there are 1.7 million. That is seven in 10 children in families on universal credit.
The National Food Strategy has proposed the income cap is raised to £20,000 a year, which would bring about 900,000 children into eligibility. This would cost around £425 million a year and would mean around two-thirds of children whose families get universal credit also get means-tested free school meals.
But this campaign goes further, calling for an expansion to all primary school children. Those backing it believe that there are issues around the system which cannot be solved by simply extending free school meals to a certain number of disadvantaged children.
“I understand some of the arguments around just targeting those disadvantaged children,” Burton says. “But there’s no way that you can guarantee children are not going to slip through the cracks, especially with the way that finances are at the moment and with the cost of living crisis.
“There are a lot of families who might be fine one month, but the next month might not be. The systems in place currently cannot keep up with making sure those kids don’t slip through the cracks.”
It is about combating the stigma around free school meals too. “There is this feeling in schools that children pick up on being stigmatised because they are not able to afford the kind of meal their friends have,” Burton says.
“We hear a lot from teachers who are telling us about kids who are taking their meals home if they’re getting any food at school to feed younger siblings or pass it round their family. There is so much anxiety and stress which comes with that.”
More than 80% of primary school teachers polled by the charity Chefs in Schools last year said children are coming to school hungry because their families cannot afford food. A quarter said children are skipping lunch entirely due to poverty.
Teachers said pupils were “often unwell due to the lack of nutrients in their food at home”, while others noticed children were “eating things such as rubbers to have something in their tummies”.
Malnutrition has a dangerous impact on kids’ long-term development. Children in the most disadvantaged areas can expect 20 fewer years of good health in their lives than children in other areas, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.
Laurence Guinness, chief executive of the Childhood Trust, previously told The Big Issue hunger has a significant impact on children’s health – they will be lacking in vitamins, nutrients and proteins which will weaken their immune systems and expose them to illness and disease. It will also have an impact on their mental health.
“We’ve never seen levels of food insecurity this high before,” he says. “It’s really hard now for families on low and even middle incomes to make ends meet. And if a net consequence of that is the children having to miss meals, that’s really serious. That’s actually a public health crisis.”
Campaigners believe that free school meals for all primary school children is the solution – so that no child falls through the cracks in bitterly tough times.
“Providing a free school meal for every child in primary school will ensure all children can flourish and no child is left behind,” the open letter says. “Prime minister, will you commit to extending free school meals to every child in primary school?”
Hundreds of charities, medical bodies, politicians, faith leaders and celebrities are backing the National Education Union’s campaign to get the government to introduce free school meals for all primary school children. You can sign the open letter here which will be delivered to Downing Street on 29 June, and get involved with the NEU’s No Child Left Behind campaign’s Week of Action by hosting your own event.
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