Bee Wilson wants free school meals for all

Many English schoolchildren have a nutritionally deficient diet

Here comes September, brimming with the promise of shiny new pencil cases and grey trousers from Woolworths. But how few of the children now scuffing their new shoes on the way to school will be well fed when they get there. How few, indeed, will be fed by their school at all. Only 44 per cent of English children now eat school meals, compared to 68 per cent in 1979.

In January 2000 (the last date for which figures are available), a total of 1,039,789 children in England had a free school lunch. But this compares with approximately 3.76 million English children living in poverty (defined as households with half the average national income or less). Thus, far too few children are at present eligible for free school meals. Yet as many as half of those who are eligible do not actually eat them, thanks to the stigma that attaches to the privilege. Meanwhile, more and more research indicates that the diets of British children, especially in low-income households, are nutritionally deficient.

There is a single remedy to both these problems that is brilliant, obvious and very unlikely to happen: make school lunches a universal free entitlement. This is the radical proposal of a recent paper written by NS readers Margaret and Arthur Wynn (Nutrition and Health 2002, volume 16, pp 55-71).

Drawing on data produced by the National Diet and Nutrition Survey in 2000, the Wynns point out that alarming numbers of school-age children are failing to get adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals (measured against the RNI, or reference nutrient intakes). Fifty per cent of teenage girls are deficient in folate, a micronutrient essential for replication of cells and possibly a factor in reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, nervous system disorders and Alzheimer's disease. As many as 70 per cent of teenagers fail to get enough Vitamin A, which is crucial for the brain, arteries and the eyes. More than 90 per cent of teenagers are potassium-deficient. (What happens to all those bananas that the supermarkets sell?)

At the same time, chronic sickness is on the rise. Eight per cent of schoolchildren suffered chronic sickness in 1972, compared with 20 per cent in 1998, and there is a much higher concentration of sufferers among poor children. This has implications that go far beyond the school years. As the Wynns rightly note, "The chronic sickness of British children becomes the chronic sickness of adults." In the 1991 census, a million men and a million women were recorded as chronically sick, and therefore economically inactive. Bad childhood diets are a long-term drain on both the social security budget and the NHS. They also contribute to the poor health of young women, and thence to the UK's terrible record for low-birth-weight babies, currently on a par with Albania's.

Universal free school lunches would cost about £2bn a year, calculate the Wynns, or £3bn, allowing for a modest increase in quality and service. Sounds like a lot? Well, compare it with the annual total of £511bn that the government plans to be spending by 2005-6, much of it cash pumped into more testing and superfluous computers. By contrast, well-designed free school lunches would be a small investment with immediate but also truly far-reaching effects. At last, the middle classes would have an incentive to campaign to improve the food in schools, instead of insulating their own brood with complacent boxes of hummus sandwiches and cherry tomatoes, while letting the rest go hang.

"Free" anything sounds prodigal to some. But we already provide free food in prisons and hospitals, after all. There is every reason for doing the same for children - with the aim that fewer of them end up dining at the taxpayer's expense in those other institutions.