Sharon Hodgson: Free school meals are a vital part of the fight for a fairer society

26th April, 2017 7:00 am

Earlier this month Jeremy Corbyn announced that, if elected, Labour would introduce free school meals for all primary school children. As someone who has proudly banged the drum for over 10 years on this issue, I was over the moon.

This was not only because of the recognition of everyone who has campaigned on this issue for many, many years, but also the health benefits that can come from providing children with a hot and healthy school meal, especially one that is not means-tested.

Introducing universalism to school meals not only recognises Labour’s approach to universalism in public policy but also helps to reduce the stigma associated with free school meals.

Many naysayers have said that due to the introduction of cashless systems, there is no need to introduce a universal provision as stigmatisation has been reduced, but this is not the case. There is still stigma associated with free school meals in primary schools, and the stigma is not only what goes on in the dinner queue, but beyond the school gates as well.

Many parents remember the ridicule, bullying or embarrassment of being on free school meals – I remember it myself – and we all know that our experiences of school often rub off onto our children. This memory leads to parents putting their child on packed lunches or paying for their child’s school meals to save face and then struggling financially, instead of claiming free school meals to which they are entitled.

What a lot of people don’t realise is that two-thirds of children living in poverty live in households where at least one parent works and so do not meet the eligibility criteria for free school meals. Some have argued that we should reform the thresholds but, as pilots in Wolverhampton showed, this did not have anywhere near the same impact as making the provision universal.

It is clear and proven that it’s actually the poorest, who were already entitled to free school meals, who benefit the most from this policy, but so do other children too, especially when it comes to their health and what they are eating.

Back in 2008, when I wrote for The Guardian about my campaign to get the universal free school meals pilots in Durham and Newham, I argued that our preference for unhealthy foods does not differentiate between a barrister or a bin man, so it doesn’t differentiate between their children either.

We know that we have a burgeoning childhood obesity crisis in this country, with obesity-related illnesses of all ages costing the NHS £5bn a year. Yet, sadly, the government’s downgraded childhood obesity plan failed to go far enough to address this crisis. Labour won’t stand by and allow the next generation to be unhealthier than the last, and this policy is one way of showing our commitment to looking at the wide spectrum of issues contributing to this health crisis.

School food has vastly improved in recent years, which was first started by the last Labour government and Jamie Oliver, with increased investment and our updated nutritional standards and then, following the School Food Plan in 2013, with the new food standards. So, if the food on offer in our schools is now far healthier than it has ever been – and nutritionists continually argue that healthy food is good for our minds and bodies, and especially for children – why are we not insisting that the children in our schools are eating the healthiest food available every day?

The pilots in Durham and Newham showed that children were eating more vegetables during lunchtime, which went up by 23 per cent, and there was a sharp decline in the consumption of unhealthy foods, such as soft drinks – down by 16 per cent – and crisps – down by 18 per cent, as the consumption of packed lunches declined.

Some have disputed these figures, but what they show is the impact that the vision of providing a healthy free school meal can have on a child’s life – not only will it educate a child’s palette and introduce them to new and different foods, but it will also teach them about healthy eating in an inconspicuous way that reinforces learning about healthy eating in the classroom. This is the very essence of the school food plan’s “whole school approach” to food.

But these benefits can only be accessed if a child eats a school lunch. And some don’t and opt for a packed lunch instead, especially those children from working poor families who find packed lunches a cheaper option than paying for school meals, especially if they have two, three or more children.

However, what is worrying is that only one per cent of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of hot dinners, and show the scale of the problem when it comes to the food taken in by children to eat, when they could be having a healthy and nutritious school meal instead.

As a parent who had children who wanted packed lunches or hot dinners according to the whims of what their friends did, I know all too well the struggles when it comes to ensuring packed lunches are as healthy as you can make them, whilst taking into account the time constraints you have on a morning and what they are happy to eat, as well as dealing with the latest food craze in the playground.

Making free school meals universal helps to alleviate all of these pressures while packed lunches become the rarity – as why would you go to the hassle and expense of packed lunches if your child can get a lovely hot and healthy meal every day for free? This in turn helps with parents’ finances, as well as making kids healthier over time, and improving their attainment as the ability to learn is shown to improve after good food.

Universal free school meals is a policy we should all get behind, not only because of its strong Labour principles of helping to eradicate poverty, but also that it supports everyone, regardless of their background, especially when it comes to their health.

If we are to seriously address the obesity crisis here in our country, then we must look at the whole food landscape our children are exposed to. Focusing our attention on one aspect of a child’s life and neglecting others will only diminish our fight to address this issue. Just as we have a “whole school approach” to food, we need a whole society approach to it too.

Introducing universal free school meals shows Labour’s continued commitment to ensure all children have the healthiest start in life and can reach their potential.

Sharon Hodgson is MP for Washington and Sunderland West and shadow public health minister.

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