Healthy school meals have been shown to have significant health and educational benefits, enabling children to concentrate better in afternoon lessons, and helping them develop healthy eating habits. Unfortunately many children miss out on healthy school meals because their families can’t afford them.
Free school meals are intended to provide meals to children from families who may not be able to afford to provide them with a healthy meal at lunchtime. However, the current free school meals system has a number of problems.
Under the current criteria, families usually lose their entitlement to free meals when they move into work. Because more than half of families living in poverty have one or both parents in work, these children generally miss out on healthy school meals.
Another problem is stigma – some children who are entitled to free meals fail to take them because of their concerns about being indentified as being from a low income family.
Free school meals and Universal Credit
In October 2013, a new benefit system called Universal Credit is due to be introduced. The new Universal Credit benefit will replace a number of in- and out-of-work benefits, and aims to make the welfare system simpler and remove work disincentives. The introduction of the new system means that new criteria for free school meals will be required.
The Children’s Food Campaign believes that, as a minimum, the new criteria should ensure that all children living in poverty are entitled to free school meals. The simplest way to do this, and the way that best ensures that families are always better off from working, is to make free school meals available to all children whose families receive Universal Credit.
To find out more about the changes, and to support our campaign for a better free school meals system, visit https://www.sustainweb.org/childrensfoodcampaign/school_meals_action/.
Universal free school meals
The Children’s Food Campaign believes that the benefits of eating healthy school meals are sufficient to justify providing free school meals to every child as part of their education, just as stationery, computers and teachers are provided.
Evidence from trials in Hull and Scotland have shown how providing free school meals to all children has wide ranging benefits, including:
Improving children’s health
Research has found that only one per cent of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards for school meals, so providing free school meals for every child ensures that all pupils eat a healthy meal at lunchtime. Evidence from trials has demonstrated a number of health and educational benefits including increased and more varied consumption of fruit and vegetables, increased understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet, and healthier eating at home. This, in addition to evidence suggesting improved behaviour, improves the learning environment for all children, and their academic performance.
Reducing health inequalities and helping low income families
A number of families that are currently entitled to free school meals do not claim them because of the stigma attached to them, or because of the laborious process of claiming them. In addition, many families living in poverty are not currently entitled to free school meals for their children, but are unable to afford to pay for a school meal themselves. The Hull trials have provided evidence that universal provision reduces this stigma by affecting “a degree of homogeneity between those children who are eligible and those who are not”.
Removing the poverty trap that prevents parents moving into employment
Losing entitlement to free school meals when moving into work means that families can often be worse off from working, creating a significant disincentive for parents to move into employment. Making entitlement universal would remove this disincentive, and so over time could reduce child poverty more comprehensively due to the widespread benefits of employment.
Supporting the rural economy and promoting sustainable food
The increased demand for school meals from their universal free provision constitutes a predictable and guaranteed market for British farmers, many of whom currently suffer from unpredictable demands and low prices from national retailers. If implemented properly, the provision of universal free school meals could promote local and sustainable food production, ensuring that public money is spent in a way that supports rather than damages the environment and local economies. For example, the New Economics Foundation has demonstrated how money spent with local businesses such as farmers result in several times more money being returned to the local area.
Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.