Social Justice

'Universal' free school meals saved from axe in London

The Eat For Free Scheme gives free free school meals to all Newham pupils regardless of background, but council funding cuts put it at risk

Newham Council will keep its universal free school meals scheme

School lunch staff and students enjoy the new menu at the Yorkshire Elementary School in Manassas, VA., on Friday, September 7, 2012. USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

One of the UK’s first universal free school meals schemes has been saved from council cuts after public pressure to support struggling families through the Covid-19 crisis.

Children in reception, year one and year two are entitled to free school meals across England. However Newham Council has been providing free lunches to all children aged between three and 11 – roughly 12,500 pupils – regardless of family income for more than ten years.

But in December, the local authority opened a public consultation on proposals to start charging some parents after a combination of central government funding cuts and pandemic-driven costs made the Eat For Free scheme “unaffordable”.

“We listened to local families and know how important Eat For Free is,” Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz said.

She was “delighted” to confirm there would be no change to the initiative. Fiaz added that this was “despite central government cuts and the economic costs of Covid-19”.

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“We want every child to have the best possible start to life. Eat for Free makes a positive difference in learning and development of children and young people,” she said.

Newham has one of the highest child poverty rates in the country, with more than half of kids living in poverty compared to 38 per cent across other London boroughs. 

The scheme saves families an average of £500 per child and means children from migrant families, who are not entitled to free school meals, are guaranteed a nutritious meal every day.

Saving the scheme was “absolutely the right decision,” said a spokesperson for the Magpie Project – a Big Issue Changemaker – which supports Newham parents and young children at risk of homelessness.

“Thank you so much Newham Council for making sure none of our children go hungry.”

Universal free meals have “a profoundly positive impact” on children’s health, social development and education, a Sustain UK spokesperson said. The model reduces stigma for disadvantaged children and creates local jobs, they added.

The local authority published plans to start means-testing the free lunches. It would have meant charging some parents up to £270 a year in a bid to save £1.9 million.

“This is the wrong time to be cutting the lifeline of universal free school meals,” School Food Matters founder Stephanie Slater said at the time.

“It’s heartbreaking to hear that Newham’s brilliant work around child food poverty is under threat. Throughout the pandemic the council has been a trailblazer in its response to the Covid crisis.”

We have suffered disproportionately during Covid and many of our families have lost their jobs. How can a Labour council take food from the mouths of its children?” said local Carol Buxton who started a petition to save the scheme.

The scheme costs the local authority £6 million per year. It is one of only four similar projects – with others in Tower Hamlets, Southwark and Islington. 

Councillor Sarah Ruiz said the local authority “considered all the options” before deciding to keep the scheme.

It is not yet clear if keeping Eat For Free will mean cuts elsewhere. Newham Council planned to narrow the scheme two years ago – but ended its initiative offering free musical instruments to children instead.

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