Social Justice

These countries offer free school meals for all – so why can't the UK?

Today marks the start of a week of action by the NEU to deliver free school meals to all primary school children

Free school meals

Campaigners are fighting for free school meals for all children in primary school. Image: Jenny Lewis

Feast on this: other countries across the world are dishing up free food at school for all children with great success. Wales and Scotland have promised to start offering free school meals for all primary school children, as has the London Mayor Sadiq Khan, but the UK as a whole is lagging behind.

This week is the national week of action for the National Education Union’s No Child Left Behind campaign, calling for free school meals for all children in primary school. The UK is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but millions of children are living in poverty.

Other countries have much more expansive free school meals scheme, which are helping along the way to preventing child hunger. Here are the nations that are making it work:

India

India has the largest school meal scheme in the world. It gives free lunches to children aged between six and 14, meaning that around 125 million children are fed every day. The scheme is improving nutritional health and educational outcomes. Studies have shown their are intergenerational benefits too: mothers who have benefited from the scheme have given birth to fewer short children (which can be a sign of malnutrition). 

Sweden

Sweden dishes up hot meals to all students aged seven to 16, and to most up to the age of 19. That is 1.3 million meals a day, or 260 million meals a year. This makes students healthier, and increases their lifetime income by 3%, according to a study from Lund University in Sweden published in The Review of Economic Studies.

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Brazil

Brazil expanded their free school meals scheme to all children in 2009, feeding 40 million children. It was acting on evidence that the meals helped tackle obesity and increase understanding of nutrition. One in three Brazilian children between the ages of five and nine are estimated to be overweight.

The scheme is designed by a national network of 8,000 nutritionists, and meals are required to provide at least 30% of daily nutritional requirements in schools that offer two or more meals a day.

Law stipulates that authorities must spend at least 30% of their school meal budget on produce from local farmers, so it’s helping communities too.

Finland

This programme was first announced in 1943 during the Second World War in Finland, when food was donated by local farmers and children brought in foraged food. Eight decades later, the scheme is still going (although menus have developed). Around 900,000 kids between the ages of six and 16 have access to free school meals every day. 

Estonia

All primary and secondary school children get free school meals in Estonia, and they have done so since 2002. There are also programmes for free fruit, vegetables and milk. 

Rwanda

Rwanda has increased its free school meal provision from 660,000 children to 3.8 million in both primary and secondary schools. It aims to raise awareness of good nutrition. 

The school feeding programme was introduced by the World Food Programme and ensures that every child receives a healthy meal every day by 2030.

It has been making a big difference in the lives of schoolchildren in Rwanda. It has been introduced in seven districts so far and promotes kids’ education, health, and sanitation.

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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