The PM must step up and provide for people, starting with free school meals

Kim Johnson
©️ David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

As pupils head back to school this week, nearly a quarter of them will now be eligible for free school meals – a staggering 50% increase since 2019, with numbers growing daily. It is the clearest demonstration of the explosion in child poverty that the Tories have overseen during their 12 years in power.

In constituencies like mine in Liverpool Riverside, which has some of the most deprived wards in the country, 11 children in a classroom of 30 were already living in poverty prior to the cost-of-living crisis. Nationally, nearly four million children are now living in poverty – two thirds of them in working households – as we stare down the barrel of the most drastic drop in living standards for a century.

That is why, this Thursday, I’m calling on the government to roll out universal free school meals to ensure no child has to go hungry. It will be the first test for our new Prime Minister and Education Secretary, to show how far they are prepared to go to stop families starving this winter.

A recent report from the Food Foundation revealed that levels of food insecurity in households with children has risen by over 40% since the start of this year alone. But current policies mean that two in five children living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals, and miss out on holiday support and other benefits. The bureaucracy of signing up to the scheme also meant that over 200,000 eligible children missed out in 2020.

During the pandemic, the brutal effects of financial instability, poverty and the digital divide fuelled the already deepening chasm between poorer students and their more affluent peers. It is unsurprising, then, that this year’s exam results show widening attainment gap with the grades in the North of England falling more sharply than in the South.

We need urgent action to protect children from going hungry over the coming months, reverse the resurgence of Victorian diseases such as rickets and scurvy and tackle the deep-rooted inequalities in educational outcomes. Providing pupils with at least one hot, nutritious meal a day at school will help to both mitigate the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and tackle the longer-term inequalities.

The impacts of child hunger are well documented. Numerous studies have shown the links between nutrition and cognitive development, not to mention the psychological and emotional impact of financial instability. Poverty and deprivation are also linked to higher levels of childhood obesity and vitamin D deficiency; problems recognised in the government’s own national food strategy, which stated: “There is a nutritional gap between rich and poor in this country, and it is a deeply rooted tragedy.”

In a recent NEU survey, eight in ten teachers said their students demonstrated fatigue and an inability to concentrate as a result of poverty. Nearly three quarters said their students were unable to complete homework and over half said their students had experienced hunger or ill health.

The government has both a responsibility and an opportunity here. Providing free school meals to every child will help to improve behaviour and academic performance and close inequalities. It will also help to reduce absenteeism – a key aim of the government’s new schools bill.

Pilot studies of universal free school meals in the UK showed that pupils made four to eight weeks’ more progress. There was a 23% increase in the number of children eating vegetables at lunch, and the number consuming crisps and soft drinks reduced by a fifth. Crucially, analysis of the pilot suggests that only universal provision of free school meals improves outcomes regarding diet and attainment.

With the price of food now at the highest levels since the 2008 financial crisis, the government must also ensure spending on free school meals rises in line with inflation to prevent nutritional standards from decreasing. Cash for infant free school meal provision has only increased by 13p since the allocation was introduced in 2014.

Of course, free school meals will need to be part of a wider support package if we are to prevent families on low and middle incomes from freezing and going hungry this winter. Measures such as bringing energy into public ownership and implementing a £15 minimum wage will also be crucial, and will help redress longstanding and deep-rooted inequalities.

But the extension of free school meals is a cornerstone policy. The government was forced into a humiliating U-turn in response to public outrage at the lack of support for hungry children during the pandemic. It has broad support from the public, with surveys demonstrating majority support for universal free school meals.

Opposition parties are beginning to mobilise around the extension of free school meals, including a Lib Dem initiative to include children from families on Universal Credit. But, with predictions that inflation could hit as high as 22% next year, it’s clear that we’ll need to go much further to ensure families can put food on the table.

With working families facing record levels of poverty and 70% of food banks now saying they may need to turn people away or reduce their parcels, the time for tussling over acceptable thresholds for child poverty is long gone. The UK is fast turning into the poorest richest country. This government must step up and provide for its people if we are to prevent a generation lost to poverty, hunger and cold.

I hope that the new Prime Minister will learn from past mistakes and act immediately to prevent unnecessary and unimaginable suffering and hunger for millions of children and their families. We will not allow this government to continue to turn a blind eye to inequalities and suffering. Enough is enough.

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