The case for universal free school meals – and why Labour should adopt the policy

Fiona Twycross AM makes the case for universal free school meals, and calls on Labour to adopt the policy.

Fiona Twycross AM is a Londonwide Labour Member of the London Assembly; for details of the consultation on food poverty in London go to

It’s time for Labour nationally to be bold and ambitious on the issue of healthy universal free healthy school meals. There are strong examples of councils – such as Southwark and Islington in London – leading the way and demonstrating that where there’s a will there is a way, even in a time of austerity.

The report “A Children’s Future Fund” (pdf), launched by the charity Sustain and backed by 61 organisations, provides a model whereby food duties could be predicated to provide the funding:

“…to improve children’s health and protect the environment they will grow up in.”

It stresses the need for free and high quality meals in primary schools and increased food education and skills, access to fruit and drinking water in schools. It demonstrates the kind of ambitious approach needed to tackle future health time bombs.

It would also address hunger in schools which is a scandal we need to tackle now.

It is the sort of ambitious tangible policy we should be adopting as a party if we are to demonstrate we are prepared to take bold decisions to tackle difficult issues such as obesity. We need to be prepared to take on the vested interests of the food industry for the public good.

Attainment levels rise where free healthy school meals are introduced and the policy would, therefore, arguably be a more effective way of increasing educational attainment than a structural reorganisation or tinkering of the curriculum. The policy – by removing the cost of lunches for children during the school week – would also place Labour firmly on the side of hard pressed families.

Pilots funded by the former Labour government demonstrate that extending eligibility doesn’t extend take up of free healthy school meals significantly. The only way to dramatically increase the take up is through universal provision which creates equality in the school canteens.

Free school lunches don’t address children not eating breakfast and it doesn’t address their diet at home. The policy would, however, go a long way towards ensuring the billions spent annually on diseases such as diabetes – which put a massive and unsustainable strain on NHS resources – don’t rise indefinitely.

It is also a comparatively cheap policy – the report on the pilots estimated the cost to be around £220 per Primary school pupil over two years.

The Labour Party currently has a policy review on “Children, Food and Obesity” (pdf), and when Andy Burnham, Shadow Secretary of State for Health, recently started a debate on whether there should be legal limits of fat and sugar in children’s food, he drew on the frightening statistics about childhood obesity in the UK to illustrate why this is a serious issue we need to tackle.

The OECD has claimed more than a quarter of girls in the UK are obese (26.6%), with boys not far behind (22.7%) – [see OECD Obesity Update 2012] – and the National Child Measurement Programme says more than a third of children are obese or overweight by the time they leave primary school.

Legal limits of fat and sugar in children’s food sound sensible and it’s an important issue to debate. However, although some foods are clearly aimed at children through the packaging and contents, there isn’t a neat category of products.

You would need blanket legal limits on contents of processed food for the policy to be workable and it would be a brave politician who would introduce legislation that must surely lead to a ban on traditional sausages. A much neater way of managing a healthy diet and storing up both good health and good habits for the future would be through managing children’s diets at school.

If Sustain are genuinely expecting the current government to take up the suggestion of food duties for free healthy school meals, they are probably going to be disappointed.

The Responsibility Deal has not proved itself effective yet. The level of praise heaped on soft drinks companies by government ministers last week for reducing the sugar levels from ‘a huge amount’ to ‘a lot’ shows this government is unlikely to dramatically increase the moral or fiscal pressure on the food industry.

The report also provides evidence for those who instinctively know the answer to the question ‘how can we afford to provide universal free healthy school meals?’ is ‘how can we afford not to?’

It would be nice to think the chancellor would listen to the arguments made by the report and in March we would see a dramatic change in the government’s policy towards free healthy school meals. Failing that, adopting the proposal as a future Labour policy seems like both a sensible progressive and ambitious step.

See also:

Blackpool council leads the charge on free school breakfastsJanuary 9th, 2013

Breakfast clubs axed, teacher handouts…. the scandal of hungry children in our schoolsOctober 26th, 2012

Survey reveals huge increase in number of pupils coming to school hungryOctober 16th, 2012

IFS: Free school meals for all increased attainment in disadvantaged areasJuly 26th, 2012

Two children in every classroom go hungryJuly 5th, 2012

Hungry pupils? Well, the government did scrap plans for 500,000 free school mealsJune 20th, 2012

Failure to extend free school meals will cost poorest families £600 a yearJune 10th, 2012

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