People, including the Big Issue’s Lord John Bird, gathered outside Downing Street. Image: Rehan Jamil
Rishi Sunak has been handed an open letter demanding free school meals for all primary school children, signed by more than 90,000 people and 200 organisations, charities, faith groups, politicians and celebrities.
It is part of a week of action organised by the National Education Union (NEU) to convince the government that no child should be going hungry in one of the richest countries in the world.
“It is not unusual,” said Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the NEU, as he spoke to the crowds outside 10 Downing Street on Thursday, 29 June. “It is not radical.”
The Welsh and Scottish governments have already committed to implementing free school meals for all in their primary schools, and London will be offering free lunches for primary school kids too.
“It really matters,” Courtney added. “Child poverty in this country is an absolute disgrace.” There are four million children living in poverty in the UK, of whom 800,000 are not eligible for free meals.
This is because the eligibility criteria is so restrictive. Only parents who earn less than £7,400 a year between them (after tax and excluding universal credit) will have children who are eligible for free school meals.
“Some people are just not quite poor enough to have a decent, hot meal when they go to school,” said Kate Bell, the assistant secretary for the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that free school meals for all primary school children would cost around £1 billion.
But Courtney said: “Don’t regard this as a cost. Regard this as an investment in our country. Regard this as an investment in our future generations.”
Research by the Impact for Urban Health found that for every £1 put into free school meals, £1.38 would be returned through benefits such as health and social care, and educational development.
Campaigners believe there is no guarantee that the means-tested system will prevent children from falling through the cracks. “Everyone is having a tough time at the moment,” Courtney said, suggesting that a family might be fine one month but struggling the next.
There are arguments that universal free school meals benefit the wealthy, but Courtney said: “The wealthy send their children to private schools. And in private schools, they get a free hot meal every day. If it’s good enough for the wealthy, it’s good enough for all of us.”
Annette Mansell-Green, director of trade union and public affairs at the British Dietetic Association, said: “We wholeheartedly support this campaign. We’ve been calling for better nutrition and free school meals for years.”
She claimed we have a “government that doesn’t bloody care, frankly”, adding: “Sipping champagne at parties while our children go hungry tells you all you need to know.”
Labour MP Zarah Sultana, who has been an active supporter of the campaign in Parliament said: “Universality is at the heart of this. It has to be for all children. It has to be for every single child so there isn’t that stigma.”
She added: “Everyone understands what the issue is here. It is that lack of political will that we need to fight. That’s what needs to change.”
The campaign is backed by the Big Issue Group. Its co-founder Lord John Bird said: “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.”
The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.
Buy a Big Issue Winter Support Kit for £34.99, you’ll receive four copies of the magazine and vendors could receive immediate tools for survival plus access to vital training and employment pathways to escape poverty for good.