Currently more than half of all primary school children miss out on a healthy school meal, many for reasons of poverty. Free school meals have been shown to improve health and help tackle health inequalities, as well as removing the poverty trap faced by parents trying to move into employment. The Children’s Food Campaign wants to see every primary school child receive a free school meal every day.
Why is this important?
Currently, less than half of all primary school children take advantage of the healthy meal offered during the school day. Some of these children are entitled to free meals, but do not take them because of the stigma attached to this, or a tedious application procedure. Others, many living in poverty but not entitled to free meals, are unable to afford them, or can only afford them for one or two days each week. Still others do not because of other factors, including not being able to sit with their friends, inadequate canteen facilities or insufficient portions.
With the introduction of nutritional standards for school meals, children who take advantage of them are now guaranteed at least two of their five daily portions of fruit and vegetables, along with other essential vitamins and minerals, which plays an important role in developing healthy eating habits. Consumption of healthy school meals can influence children’s food diet at home, helping to develop healthy eating habits, and exposing them to foods such as new types of fruits and vegetables which they might not otherwise have tried. And while the consumption of junk food is also linked to poor behaviour, which can negatively affect children’s learning at school, provision of healthier school meals has been shown to improve classroom behaviour, helping to improve academic performance.
All this is particularly important for children coming from disadvantaged background, who are least likely to eat a healthy diet and thus suffer from related healthy inequalities.
What’s the solution?
The Children’s Food Campaign believes that the universal provision of free school meals would help address these problems. 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
School meals are now required to meet high nutritional standards, ensuring that children get a healthy meal while at school. Evidence from trials have 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, which improves the learning environment for all children, and 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 this, 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 effects “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
Loss of entitlement to free school meals represents a significant disincentive for parents to move into employment, particularly in families with several children. 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 taxes are spent in a way that supports rather than damages the environment and local economies. For example, nef (the New Economics Foundation) have demonstrated how money spent with local businesses such as farmers result in several times more money being returned to the local area.
Progress so far
In September 2008, following campaigning from a group for civil society organisations including the Children’s Food Campaign, the Government announced pilots of free school meals to investigate the health and social benefits of free school meals. The two year pilots begin in September 2009 in three local authorities around the UK. In Durham and the London Borough of Newham, free school meals will be made available to all primary school children; in Wolverhampton the current entitlement to free meals will be extended to include more children from low income families in both primary and secondary schools. In addition, the London Borough of Islington now provides free meals for its primary school pupils.
The Children’s Food Campaign welcomes this step, which acknowledges the benefits of universal provision of free school meals. However, given the severity of the children’s diet and obesity crisis, and the increased pressure on low income families’ budgets in the current economic climate, we need action now! By the time the pilots, which may be extended for a third year, have run their course, been evaluated, and change instigated as a result, many more children will have missed the opportunity to enjoy a healthy school meal every day, with resultant negative effects on their health and education. Evidence from the trials in Hull and Scotland have already shown clear benefits, and it’s time our children stopped missing out.
We continue to work with a wider coalition of groups to push for universal provision of free school meals now.
What can I do?
Join our campaign for universal free school meals. Register your support for the campaign by emailing Christine@sustainweb.org.
Frequently Asked Questions
Wouldn’t providing free school meals for all cost too much?
By introducing free school meals, a number of savings would arise. Economies of scale would reduce the cost of each meal, and school and local authority staff would be freed up from time they spend administering the current system, such as collecting money from children who pay, and processing applications from children entitled to free meals.
The improved health of the nation’s children would result in significant savings to the NHS, and educational benefits would translate into a more prosperous future economy.
And if implemented properly, the benefits of sustainably sourcing would support the rural economy, benefiting British producers, and reduce environmental impact through cutting transport, energy use and waste.
Isn’t providing free meals to well-off children a waste of tax payers money?
While the benefits of free school meals are particularly important to children from low income families, poor diet and obesity also affects children from wealthier backgrounds. And the educational and behavioural benefits apply to all children, regardless of their background: if just a few children are disruptive, the learning of all children is affected.Unless meals are provided free to all children, there will always exist a poverty trap, a level at which there is a disincentive to raise income because the loss of benefits (such as free school meals) is not fully compensated for by the increase in income.
There is also a suggestion that because of the economies of scale associated with universal provision, and the reduction in bureaucracy in administering the system, providing free meals to all children is more cost efficient.
Surely this isn’t something that voters would support?
The introduction of free school meals would benefit a vast number of families, and the evidence suggests that the measure would be popular. For example, according to a recent Netmums survey, which received more than 2000 responses, 62 per cent of respondents were supportive of free school meals for all, with only 21 per cent being opposed.
Wouldn’t the quality or portion-size suffer if all meals were free?
Interestingly, many of the parents surveyed by Netmums who were less supportive of free school meals said that this was because they were worried about a decline in quality or size of the meals. The new standards for school meals ensure that the meals are prepared with fresh , healthy ingredients and give children the nutrients they need, with extra bread and salad provided for children to fill up on. These standards are protected by law, and so would apply whether the meals were provided free of charge or not. In pushing for the introduction of free school meals for all, we are stressing the importance of quality and sustainability for both children and food producers.
Surely there isn’t enough space in dining rooms for all children to eat a school meal?
In some schools, due to the lack of investment and priority, there isn’t currently the capacity to feed every child. Therefore, as part of introducing universal free school meals, investment will be needed in these schools in order to bring their facilities up to standard. Just as lack of railway lines didn’t prevent to invention of the train, the existence of substandard canteen facilities should not be used as an excuse to avoid introducing a measure that would considerably improve children’s health.
What do you mean by sustainable food?
You can explore the concept of sustainable food, including Sustain’s seven principles of sustainable food, at www.sustainweb.org/sustainablefood.
The following organisations and websites provide more information about this issue.
The School Food Trust’s website provides extensive information on a range of topics relating to school meals. The following documents are particularly relevant:
School Food Trust/LACA (2008) Third annual survey of take up of school meals in England
London Economics (2008) Assessing current and potential provision of free school meals
School Food Trust (2008) Guide to the nutrient-based standardsPilots
Department for Children, Schools and Families, September 2008: New £20m free school meals pilot
University of Hull (2008) Evaluation of Eat Well Do Well: Kingston Upon Hull’s School Meal Initiative
Scottish Government (2008) Evaluation of the Free School Meals Trial for P1 to P3 Pupils
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.
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