The launch of the Free School Meals for All Bill; promoted by the National Education Union’s No Child Left Behind campaign. Image:Vicki Couchman
There are nearly two million children in England who receive free school meals because they come from households which struggle to put food on the table. But there are at least two million more in poverty across the UK who aren’t getting this support. Labour MP Zarah Sultana is on a mission to change that – to stop children going hungry in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And she has a plan.
“Before the cost of living crisis, it was important. Now, it is an urgent demand,” she told the Big Issue. “There are millions of kids in the UK who go to sleep hungry at night and then are learning on an empty stomach.”
The Labour MP wants to change the law to guarantee all primary school children in England receive free school meals. Too utopian? Too gutsy? The idea was even called “ridiculous” by one commentator on Good Morning Britain. But Sultana feels strongly that the arguments in favour of universal free school meals are impossible to refute.
Wales and Scotland have already set the policy in motion, Sultana points out, so why is England lagging behind? “There is this cliff edge in England that stops kids from being able to have free school meals when they enter year three. The eligibility is so strict there are kids that are classed as living in poverty unable to have free school meals.”
There are 800,000 children in households on universal credit who are not given free school meals, according to the Food Foundation. A household has to be earning less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including universal credit) before their child is deemed eligible. Anyone earning above that amount but still struggling to make ends meet doesn’t get a look in.
England footballer Marcus Rashford had already campaigned, at the height of the pandemic, to extend free school meals to all children on universal credit but then-prime minister Boris Johnson shot it down, alongside his chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Sunak is now in No.10, and Sultana says the change in policy is needed more than ever.
“Families who were just about coping simply aren’t coping anymore,” Sultana says. “They were making decisions about heating and eating but now they can do neither. This is one way we can make sure children are having a healthy meal.”
On Tuesday, the MP for Coventry South introduced her Free School Meals for All bill in parliament. Sultana drew on the hundreds of letters she received from parents, teachers and even pupils about their experiences with poverty and free school meals.
Peter, a teacher in Leeds, described how a seven-year-old burst into tears in front of him, scared there wasn’t any food at home. Another pupil stole bagels and put them in his bag, while packed lunches consisted of nothing but a couple of slices of bread.
People who wrote to Sultana mentioned the shame and stigma they had felt as recipients of free school meals, made to eat their lunches in a separate section of the canteen or made to pick up a special voucher. “There is a stigma that exists within the means-tested system that we have,” Sultana says, “and only universal provision will tackle that.”
“Universality as a principle is really important,” she adds. “It’s what our NHS is also founded on. It’s really important to make sure that the provision is universal because otherwise kids will slip through the gap.”
Only 1.6 per cent of packed lunches are estimated to meet the government’s standards of nutrition for school meals, according to a study from researchers at the University of Leeds. One teacher wrote to Sultana: “When the day consists of long hungry hours with no substantial meal in sight, who wouldn’t struggle to learn and concentrate?”
Her speech recommending the bill was the longest the 29-year-old had ever given in parliament. A number of MPs left the chamber before she spoke, and the prime minister was not present. But Sultana remains positive. “There weren’t any members of parliament who were heckling or booing me, which is what I’ve become accustomed to when I’m talking in the chamber.
“There was nothing that they disagreed with, including members on the opposite bench in the Conservative government. We need Conservative MPs to support the bill. That’s the only way we can pass it through parliament.”
And in the London Borough of Newham, which self-funds the policy, there has been improved concentration, attainment and behaviour in children. Free school meals have also more recently been introduced in all primary schools in Westminster.
In her speech, Sultana said she is always asked how the government is expected to fund the expansion. “It’s always asked as if it’s a ‘got ya’, as if the aim for every child to have a good meal a day is somehow utopian, as if it’s an impossible fantasy.
“Not only is this a strange question to ask, after just being told the policy is a reality in other parts of the UK and across the world, as if children in England were uniquely difficult to feed, it also forgets that there is immense wealth in this country.”
Sultana suggests that the expansion of free school meals should be funded by ending the charitable status of elite private schools in the UK. This would generate £1.7billion in public funds, almost double the money needed to fund free school meals for every primary school child, estimated to be around £950million.
It’s also cost effective – with recent research finding that an expansion of the free school meals scheme would generate billions for the economy across health, education and social sectors.
But Sunak, who went to the prestigious Winchester College, dismissed removing the charitable tax breaks when pressed by Labour leader Keir Starmer.
“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,” Sunak said in parliament.
But Sultana insists: “The question is whether we want to protect tax breaks for elite private schools or feed hungry children.” The Labour Party currently has plans to introduce free breakfast clubs across primary schools in England if it wins power, but Sultana says this doesn’t go far enough to tackle deeply entrenched poverty in the UK.
“My constituents are telling me they’re struggling to put food on the table, and free school meals will make a massive difference,” she says. “This is one way we can immediately help families. It’s something the government has to adopt if it’s really sincere about levelling up, and about tackling food poverty and child poverty.
“I really need people to contact their MP to support the bill. We need MPs from across parties, but especially the Conservative Party, to support this bill for it to come into reality.”
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.