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Why we should all Say Yes to School Food For All

Like chairs, desks and bathrooms, the Say Yes to School Food For All campaign believes food should be free for every child in school by 2030. But how can we fund it? What do we mean by a 'school meal'? And can anyone 'Say Yes'? All your questions, answered!

An introduction to Say Yes

What is the SAY YES campaign?

The Say Yes campaign is calling for an end to means-testing of school meals by 2030 as part of a modern, inclusive education system, with a fully universal school food offer from nursery to sixth form college. This will mean that no matter where they live, where they’re from, or how much their parents earn, children aged 3 – 18 will receive a free school meal every day, just like they receive free school books and desks. As part of this, we are calling on all political parties to unite in a joint vision to progressively achieve universal school meals across the UK by no later than 2030, and to state this in their General Election manifestos. Join and Say Yes today!

Who else is supporting Say Yes?

This campaign is led by Sustain and the Children’s Food Campaign, but it has been built and supported by over 20 organisations working on children’s health, education, food and farming, child poverty and more. Our founding supporters include the author of the National Food Strategy Henry Dimbleby plus organisations including School Food Matters, Food Foundation, Biteback 2030, Child Poverty Action Group, the British Youth Council, UK Youth Parliament, the National Education Union, UNISON, Nourish Scotland and so many more. See our website for a full list of national campaign supporters and check our map for local organisations and individuals.

Who can Say Yes?

Anyone who agrees with the idea that school food should be provided for all children equally is welcome to sign up to Say Yes – individuals, businesses, local authorities, community groups – we want everyone. Add yourself to the map to Say Yes now. Read the declaration of support for more information.

What happens if I Say Yes?

When you sign up, we’ll use your postcode to place a pin on the Say Yes map with your name. That way you get to see who else in your area or around the country supports the campaign! Just like a petition, we’ll then hand every name on the map to our governments later in 2023 asking them to Say Yes in the General Election. Being on the map will allow you to opt into receiving campaign updates and invitations to take more action. We will not store any data for those under 18. See our full privacy policy

Setting the scene on school food in the UK

How many UK children currently get free school meals?

  • In England, Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) are currently provided for 1.25 million children aged between 3 – 7, and an additional 1.9 million children receive benefit-related Free School Meals. The family earnings threshold for eligibility for free school meals is £7,400, which means an estimated 800,000 school children living in poverty remain excluded. Five London boroughs already provide meals for all primary school pupils, and the Mayor of London announced funding for all primary meals across London for the 2023/24 academic year. 
  • In Scotland, all primary age pupils in P1-5 receive free school meals, and these are being expanded to P6-7 in forthcoming years.
  • In Wales, universal primary meals are being introduced over the next three years.
  • In Northern Ireland, there are no universal school meals. The family earnings threshold for eligibility for free school meals is £14,000 (after tax, before benefits).

Why are we calling for a universal approach to school food?

Our state education system is meant to be free at the point of access, so just like tables and chairs, good nutrition is essential for learning and concentration, so why do we not offer school food for all? It is the only part of the school day that is means tested – and we think this is wrong. Research shows that providing healthy meals for all children equally is more effective in reaching those most in need too, as it removes stigma from the whole programme and means no one slips through the net. We absolutely agree that children experiencing food insecurity should be the top priority for any immediate expansion of school food, as part of a progressive vision towards school food for all.

Why should we fund school food for all?

Because it is an investment in the future, and the Government could budget it that way. Research has found that funding school food for all would cost £1.8 billion a year, plus additional one off infrastructure support costs to cover kitchen upgrades and staffing. A cost-benefit analysis by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), commissioned by Impact on Urban Health, forecasts total economic and wider benefits worth £99.5 billion from 2025-45, against a cost of £24.2 billion over the same twenty-year period. To put that into perspective, here are some examples of how our money is spent on other projects:

  • Phase one of HS2 has a budget of £44.6 billion, is set to cost £7 billion a year to 2029, with some estimates suggesting the total project could cost up to £100 billion.
  • A parliamentary public accounts committee reported that £4 billion of unused PPE bought in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic was burned. 
  • The Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which ran for just one month in August 2020, cost £849 million.

In short, we believe that the Government has the power to make provision, and also to budget this as a sound targeted investment in the future prosperity and health of our nation.

Why don’t more councils fund this?

Five councils in London currently provide additional funding so that all primary school children receive meals, and the Mayor of London has just committed funding for all London boroughs for the 2023/24 academic year only. However, with tight local budgets and pressures over raising council taxes, it is increasingly difficult for local authorities to fund expansion of meals without taking money away from other important services. They need central Government funding for schools to scale up, just as happened exactly 10 years ago with the introduction of Universal Infant Free School Meals, and just as Scotland and Wales have now committed to for primary schools..

How School Meals for All would work

Would this extend to the school holidays?

Say Yes is a campaign for universal school meals during term time. We are not calling for holiday provision to be universal as well, but do want better targeted support to families during holidays. We fully support campaigns from our partners and friends calling for holiday provision to be extended to all families in receipt of Universal Credit, in a form that suits them – cash, vouchers and/or holiday activities. 

What do we mean by a ‘school meal’?

When we say ‘school meals’ we mean lunch or breakfast. Breakfast schemes do use a different mechanism and our friends at Magic Breakfast have a specific campaign calling for breakfast provision to be scaled up, but given the importance of both breakfast and lunch for a school day we want Government to Say Yes to both.

How can we ensure the school food is healthy and nutritious?

Key to our campaign is the roll out of healthy and sustainable school food for all, not just pizza and hotdogs. UK nations already have school food standards which we campaigned for, but we can go further to serve up a healthy and planet friendly diet that supports local farmers and growers. Reducing sugary desserts, and increasing fruit, vegetables, fibre and plant-based protein such as pulses is healthier and also very cost effective. Some local authorities already delivering universal primary meals have set specific standards that must be met before schools and their caterers can access funding.  

We’d want the same principles embedded in any national roll out of school meals for all – clear, ambitious, healthy and planet friendly standards.  Our vision is that a national school food system must ensure good nutritious food on children’s plates whilst also using public money to support local and sustainable procurement, decent work, and a healthy planet. 

Which other countries already provide school food for all?

Sweden, Finland, Estonia, India and Brazil all provide a free meal to every pupil as part of the school day. In the US, free meals were provided to all students during the pandemic, and several states including California, Maine and Colorado have now committed to continue this. Read more on free school meals around the world.

Can we really achieve school food for all by 2030?

Yes! We believe 2030 is an achievable vision to adopt for school food for all and school leaders have told us it’s possible too. The government also has a target of halving childhood obesity by 2030, and nutritious, healthy meals in school together with food education and cooking skills can all be part of one vision for children’s health. 

We know this can’t happen overnight. It will take time, resources and planning to ensure there are suppliers, caterers, as well as school kitchens and staff in place to create a happy, healthy food experience for pupils. 2030 creates an ambition to progressively end means testing of school children over the lifetime of the next Governments across all nations of the UK. First steps might include immediately expanding entitlement to all children living in poverty to address the most urgent cost of living crisis. Expanding universal infant free school meals progressively to all  primary school pupils so as they move through school they can always access a free meal is another obvious step over the next two to three years, whilst allowing time to plan and pilot a universal secondary school healthy food system by 2030. We also hope that our Say Yes to School Food For All campaign will also act as a catalyst for innovative thinking and pilot programmes on how to achieve this vision.

Published Thursday 9 March 2023

School Food For All: We want to change the UK’s school meals policy so that every child, regardless of background or parental income, is given a school meal every day.

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Cecily worked at Sustain for two years from September 2020 as the Communications and Network Coordinator for Food Power, the Food Roots Incubator and the Food Learning Forum.

Cecily Spelling
Communications and Events Coordinator
Food Power

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