Campaign Pushes for Universal Free School Meals in England

A new campaign is set to be launched in United Kingdom to encourage politicians to offer free meals to all primary pupils. The campaigners' group, led by Islington councillor Richard Watts, London Assembly member Fiona Twycross and president of GMB union Mary Turner, is calling the government to introduce universal free school meals in all primary schools.

The campaign, which will be launched at a fringe event at the Labour party conference later this month, wants universal free school meals to be included in all local authority manifestos for the next year and the Labour manifesto for 2015, according to Janet Murray and Denis Campbell of The Guardian.

The campaign is backing a recent government-commissioned review of school food that called for the introduction of universal free school meals in primary schools. The review, dubbed The School Food Plan, was carried out by the founders of the Leon restaurant chain, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent. Published in July, the food plan highlighted the poor nutritional quality of many packed lunches and low uptake of school meals.

Schools in England already are offering universal free school meals for primary children. A small group of schools in Southwark, including Surrey Square primary in the London borough of Southwark, introduced universal free school meals for primary children in early 2011, and phased in over a three-year period. With the introduction of free school meals, staff noticed better behavior, concentration levels and attainment in pupils.

Universal free school meals initiative is not new for Labour. In early 2010, then Labour children's secretary Ed Balls announced seven more pilots in areas such as Nottingham, Bradford and Medway following successful pilots in Hull, Durham and Newham. But all cancelled when the coalition government came to power. The Institute for Fiscal Studies and National Centre for Social Research, which evaluated those free school meals program, found that the introduction of free school meals led to significant improvements in the attainment of children from low-income backgrounds.

In addition to being good for learning and health, universal free school meals would also help low-income families. A 2010 Leeds University study found that packed lunches are not healthy with just 1% of packed lunches meeting basic dietary needs.

The cost of school meals, around £500 a year per child on average, can make a real difference, Islington councillor Richard Watts said. Published earlier this year, the Children's Society's research showed that more than 60% of children living in poverty were either ineligible or failing to claim free school meals.

"We are increasingly hearing of families on the breadline, who are not officially in poverty, but are struggling to cope," says Watts. Universal free meals would also help tackle the problem of getting families who are entitled to, to take them. Low take-up of free meals means schools miss out on pupil premium funding, which gives schools extra cash to spend on children from poorer backgrounds, as this is allocated on the basis of how many children are claiming free meals.

The Department for Education (DfE) said in a report published last year that about 200,000 pupils are entitled to, but are not claiming, free meals. The report also found that a further 200,000 register but do no actually have school dinners.

Despite most schools now using a cashless system, where dinner money is paid in advance by parents (or by the local authority), for some families, there is still a stigma attached to "free school dinners," the report said.

According to Watts, universal free school meals for all primary children in England is estimated to cost about £1bn, which represents just 1% of the DfE's current budget, plus 0.4% of the Department of Health's budget.

Another supporter of universal free school meals, food and farming charity Sustain, has suggested that the cost could be funded by a tax on sugary drinks.

09 13, 2013
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