Metro mayor candidates urged to support expansion of free school meals  

'We need to end the postcode lottery in Free School Meals now.'

Free school meals

Following Sadiq Khan’s promise to continue free school meals (UFSM) for primary schools in London if he is re-elected as mayor, mayoral candidates in the forthcoming May 2 elections are being urged to make a similar commitment. 

An open letter, coordinated by The Food Foundation charity, which champions for a food system which delivers health and wellbeing for all, urges all mayoral candidates to pledge to end the ‘school food postcode lottery.’

Research by the Food Foundation shows that one in five households with children experience food insecurity in Britain. Additionally, one in three children leave primary school at an unhealthy weight.

A third of school-age children (900,000) who are living in poverty in England, miss out on free school meals. As Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) informs, this is due to a lack of universal provision and the restrictive eligibility criteria for the current means-tested provision.

“Government action in England lags far behind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where devolved governments have decided to provide more children with free school meals,” says CPAG.

As Sadiq Khan said when he promised to continue providing free school meals to pupils in London if he is re-elected as mayor, the provision has “proved a lifeline during the worst decline in living standards on record. The London Mayor noted how it leaves parents and carers up to £1,000 per child over two years.

“That meal can be the difference between a child realising their potential and falling short of it. That meal removes the shame of not having enough money to eat. That meal makes children feel equal,” Khan added.

The Liberal Democrats have also pledged to maintain free school meals, but the  Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall said she would review the policy.

The Food Foundation’s open letter has been signed by 87 signatories, including celebrity chefs Tom Kerridge and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, as well as NGOs, academics, councillors, doctors and health organisations.

“It’s great to see the scheme will potentially be made permanent in London, but we need to make sure young people across the country are receiving the same level of support,” said Fearnley Whittingstall.

Tom Kerridge commented: “We need to end the postcode lottery in Free School Meals now.

“Every child should have a hot meal at lunchtime. Free School Meals provide a vital safety net for families struggling in the current cost of living crisis and policy makers need to commit to making sure every child in the UK can benefit, learn and go on to reach their potential.”

New polling commissioned by the Food Foundation shows that support for free school meal provision is high in areas where metro mayor elections are taking place.  In the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, for example, 80 percent of people support expanding Free School Meals to more children, while 75 percent support expanding the current scheme to all children. 

Commenting on the key message of the letter, Anna Taylor, Executive Director of The Food Foundation, said: “As the transformative potential of free school meals is being increasingly recognised in London, we are calling for the scheme to be expanded nationwide to bring an end to the postcode lottery. Every child deserves access to healthy, nutritious food regardless of where they live.

“As we approach the 2024 general election, we urge all national political parties and metro mayors to pledge to do what’s right and ensure that no child in England is left to go hungry at school.” 

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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