Some 23.8% of pupils in England are eligible for free school meals,  representing over 2 million children in a school population of 9.1 million.  Of that 2 million, only 1.6 million claimed a FSM and beyond them are many children who are not well fed.  Prior to Covid, around 2.5% of households used a food bank and by 2021 this rose to 11% (Source: Food Standards Agency) and this must be having an effect on child nutrition. The exponential growth in the use of food banks is a clear sign that action is needed.

Schools are not just about acquiring knowledge, skills and understanding about the curriculum.  They are about developing children to take their place in society, to learn how to be empathetic, to be tolerant, to learn how to make the best choices in life and importantly how to be healthy.

Unfortunately there are many families who, because of rising prices, are unable to make the best choices about food for the family.  This is largely, but not exclusively, related to income.  Poor nutrition leads eventually to poor health whether that be obesity or a lack of essential minerals. Low blood sugar, limited attention and poor physical health mean that learning is less effective in school, and ultimately reduces life choices due to poor attainment and creates extra demand on local services from the NHS to social services.

So it is clear that providing a good meal in the middle of the day is the right thing to do.  But can we afford it?   A recent cost-benefit analysis of free meals to those families on universal credit showed that each £1 spent on meals would generate £1.34 into the economy.  Moreover every £1 spent on giving everyone a free school meal would generate  £1.71 into the economy. (PWC data provided for “Impact on Urban Health” report by Investing in Children’s Future).

Even though the benefits are clear, the current system of eligibility for Free School Meals (FSMs) is not working and the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that there are some one million children in poverty who still do not qualify for a FSM.

So we believe that the only way to move is to introduce FSMs for all.  They should no longer be called FSMs and be seen as an integral part of the school day.   So let’s drop the word ‘free’ and talk instead about the Midday Meal (MM) which should be an integral part of the curriculum, demonstrating healthy eating and developing an understanding about food and nutrition.   It is worth observing that obesity rates in France are lower than in the UK and food and nutrition is an integral part of the French curriculum. (EU School Food Policy Country Factsheet) Of course there are organisational matters to sort out – having the right tables, space and capacity – but there are always solutions to these problems with careful planning.  Meal times can be staggered and food can be delivered, for example.

If midday meals are seen as part of the children’s development, more skills and behaviours can be cultivated.  In Japan (a different culture I know) it is totally normal that cleaning up after meal times and at the end of the day is expected, and sitting with friends and adults outside the classroom can teach great social behaviours.

So it is clear that

  • the cost of a Universal Midday Meal is not only affordable but adds to the economy but it also puts money into the local supply chain.
  • they promote healthy eating which reduces demands on health and social services
  • they rpovides a social setting in the school day to balance the pressures of the academic curriculum

Jim Wynn

Jim Wynn was a Labour candidate in Tillingbourne at the recent GBC election. He is a former headtacher and an adviser the British Council and various Ministries of Education worldwide

Jim Wynn
Jim Wynn

Jim Wynn was a Labour candidate in Tillingbourne at the recent GBC election. He is a former headtacher and an adviser the British Council and various Ministries of Education worldwide

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