Labour will only win the next election if we can show people that we’re on their side. And what better policy to do this than universal free school meals, which both help hard-pressed families and improve children’s health and learning.
The Labour party in Islington, Newham and County Durham have just introduced free school meals for all – the latter two partly funded by the Government. The results so far show that almost all children are now eating healthy school meals, instead of unhealthy (and expensive) packed lunches or, worse, just some snacks eaten on the way to school.
This not only helps in the battle against childhood obesity, teachers also report that well-fed children learn better and behave better too.
But don’t all children who can’t currently afford a school meal get one for free already? Scandalously, no. The income qualification for free meals is so low that many families under the official poverty line still do not qualify.
Asking families like this to pay for school meals, which cost around £300-a-year per child, is one of the most invidious elements of the poverty trap. Simply the cost of school meals is one of the main reasons it doesn’t pay for some parents to return to work. Breaking the poverty trap is vital to getting more people into work, quickening the pace of economic recovery.
Finally, many children who are eligible for free school meals currently do not claim them, because of the perceived stigma. Some schools even ask children claiming a free school meals to use a different queue. The pilots of universal free school meals show that almost all of the families who would be eligible for free school meals now do claim them as the system no longer singles them out.
Richard Watts is a Labour councillor in Islington
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