Child hunger is a political choice – we have a chance to end it with our bill

© James Jiao/

We have a chance to end child hunger with our bill. Today, our legislation – to roll out free school meals for all children in primary schools – will be heard in parliament. With 4 million children in this country currently living in poverty, and the cost-of-living crisis predicted to push close to a million more below the breadline in the coming year, we must seize this opportunity to make sure no child in this country has to go hungry.

We’re standing on the cliff edge of the deepest squeeze to living standards in a century – it’s about to get much worse. With thick snow on the ground and temperatures across the country plummeting, millions of families are struggling to warm their homes and keep food on the table. Those who have been forced to choose between heating and eating are now unable to do either.

The record rises in food prices are pushing millions more into food poverty. Families who were coping yesterday just cannot today. A report by the Childhood Trust has predicted that nearly one third of all children in this country will go hungry this winter. Nearly 70% of food bank providers now say they may need to turn people away or shrink the size of emergency rations due to a surge in demand. Victorian diseases such as rickets, scurvy, scarlet fever and malnutrition are on the rise. We’ve seen accounts of children mimicking eating from empty lunch boxes to hide the fact they have no food and even of eating erasers to curb their hunger pangs.

This government must take urgent action to alleviate the crippling poverty suffered by millions. Rolling out free school meals for all children in primary school, as called for by hundreds of civil society organisations and spearheaded by the National Education Union, is a fundamental step towards doing this. It would mark an important step towards building a society where everyone has the right to access good, healthy food, rebalancing the inequality we see across our communities.

But we must also see free school meals for all as an investment in our future. No matter how smart a child is or how amazing a teacher is, if the pupil is hungry there’s no way they can learn. We know the benefits that a guaranteed hot, nutritious meal gives to children. For many of them, it means improved diets, better attendance, higher grades, better health, and a chance to break the vicious cycle of generational poverty.

The evidence is undeniable. Introducing free school meals for all will help to reverse the long-standing and ever-deepening inequalities in health and educational attainment between poorer and more affluent peers. It’s scandalous that, even at this young age, for most of them their futures have already been decided; their life expectancy, job opportunities, salary, housing and so much more have already been determined by their background, by situations that are beyond their control.

The current restrictive eligibility, complicated registration procedures, and stigma in-built into a system that separates rich and poor mean that children are already missing out on existing support – with over 200,000 eligible children missing out on free school meals in 2020.

Means-testing when inflation is rising at the rates we’re experiencing is like trying to hit a moving target. Current policies mean that two in five children living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals. Services for poor people make for poor services. As schools prepare to shut for the winter holidays, we are reminded that last year the holiday activities and food programme only reached 29% of children on free school meals that it was supposed to. If the same happens this year, 1.35 million children will miss out on support.

Free school meals for all is already being done in countries from India to Sweden. It’s happening in Scotland and Wales, but not England. Our bill will put this right and the Labour Party should be leading the fight.

Our bill is supported by Labour MPs from across the party: from the chair of the work and pensions select committee Sir Stephen Timms, to members of the Socialist Campaign Group like ourselves. And it’s got cross-party support too: the bill is sponsored by Lib Dem and Green MPs as well as being backed by MPs from SNP, Alliance and the DUP.

But, disappointingly, free school meals for all isn’t Labour Party policy – yet. We hope that by bringing this bill to parliament – with the support of a coalition that includes figures ranging from Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham to faith leaders and general secretaries – we will move the political dial and the party’s position along with it.

We cannot continue to look the other way while children in our country go to bed hungry at home and learn on an empty stomach at school. Poverty and child hunger is a political choice. If we choose to get behind free school meals for all, we can help to end it. You can ask your MP to back the bill by emailing or calling them today – find out more here.

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