UK News

School meals ‘should be free for all just like desks and chairs'

All children should get free school meals, a coalition of organisations has said (Ben Birchall/PA)
Aine Fox, PA Social Affairs Correspondent

All children across the UK should get free school meals according to a coalition of campaigners who say food should be available in the same way as books, desks and chairs.

More than 40 organisations, unions, councils, politicians and other figures including Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of Leon restaurants and author of the School Food Plan, have joined the call on International School Meals Day.

Campaigners said political parties must remove the “stigmatising” means testing of children for food in school, and deliver healthy school food for all children – in both primary and secondary schools – by 2030.

It follows an announcement last month by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan of an emergency £130 million scheme to extend free school meals to every primary school pupil in the capital for one year, starting in September, in an effort to help struggling households amid the cost-of-living crisis.

John Vincent, who co-wrote the School Food Plan with Mr Dimbleby, said conclusions they came to a decade ago are as relevant today as then.

He said: “We spent a year in 2012 analysing the human, practical and economic realities of school food.

“We concluded that good free school meals for all benefits the health and attainment of children and makes economic sense.

“And now 10 years on, the evidence from the UK and abroad makes a strong case that all children should have access to free school meals.”

Mr Dimbleby said the move could “change our country forever”.

He said: “If you visit a school which has universal free school meals, you can feel immediately that it is the right thing to do. But you don't need to visit, just look at the evidence – from here and abroad – and you will see that the benefits are measurably huge. It would change our country forever.”

Organisations supporting the call include the Food Foundation, School Food Matters, Child Poverty Action Group and The Children's Society.

A film has been made with pupils from Sacred Heart Primary School in Battersea, London, to mark the campaign launch, showing an imagined situation where some children are left without chairs and desks and have to pay to use the school toilet.

Barbara Crowther from the Children's Food Campaign said: “We believe in an education system free at the point of access. We don't means test children for pencils or desks, so why for food?

“We don't means test adults or children when it comes to hospital and prison meals, so it's perverse that we still insist on this for our children. Many other countries around the world have already realised this and now seeing huge benefits of healthy meals for all.”

She said economic analysis by PWC “shows a return of £1.71 for every pound invested, and potential economic return of up to £100 billion over a 20-year period”.

Currently, households in England receiving Universal Credit must earn below £7,400 a year before benefits and after tax to qualify for free school meals while in Northern Ireland the family earnings threshold is £14,000 after tax and before benefits.

The Scottish Government has committed to providing free school meals for all primary school children, while in Wales the rollout of universal primary free school meals began in September.