Time for universal free school meals

Labour's Sharon Hodgson says universal free school meals are a vote winner and would boost the natio

If one thing is clear from the recent round of elections it is that voters don’t think much to the choice being served up by our politicians. That is why I’m working with fellow MPs, trade unions and charities to add an option to the menu. A free, locally sourced, school meal for each and every child. Think about it. It would benefit our nation’s health and education as well as the environment

The current generation of children could be the first in over a century whose life expectancy falls. If we are to lay claim to truly progressive politics and hit our child poverty targets then we need to rediscover the relationship between bold ambition and big thinking. Free school meals would be one way of doing this.

On a visit to Sweden, I saw how integral lunch time can be to the school curriculum. Classes and teachers ate together as a unit. The food was tasty, healthy and appetising. All the children tucked in heartily, helped themselves to seconds and tidied up after themselves before retuning to wipe down the tables. Many of the teachers I spoke to were shocked to discover this was not common practice in the UK. I didn’t have the guts to tell them that our dinner ladies have to compete with an average of 23 fast food outlets per secondary school.

We can’t blame the parents, or the kids. The cost of school meals to parents is expected to hit £2 per child in the near future. It is little wonder packed lunches are viewed are popular but these do not guarantee a healthy balanced diet. Neither can you expect a teenager to stay in school at lunchtime when all their mates are off to the chip shop, that’s why stay on site policies need to be enforced across the board.

Whether it is local fish, root vegetables or fresh fruit, we are lucky enough to have a tremendous amount of regional diversity in our food. This should be reflected in the nation’s school food. Every pound spent on local produce is worth twice as much to the local economy so we should aim to meet the Soil Association’s target that 50% of the food used in school meals should be sourced locally.

There is a clear link between lifestyle and educational achievement. The increased concentration which comes with a healthy diet is a bonus for pupils and teachers alike as neither has to suffer from the inevitable sugar spikes and lethargy brought on by snacks and stodge.

Of course, there is a cost attached to such a sweeping change. My own research suggests universal free school meals would rack up a bill of £1 billion. Government officials have told me the tab is more likely to be £2 billion, either way as far as I’m concerned it is worth it.

Obesity is estimated to be costing the public purse £3.5 billion a year already and this will only increase without immediate action.

Almost 70 MPs have now signed a motion calling for free school meals to be piloted across the country. I’ve set up the FULL campaign group to make the case in Parliament. We are looking carefully at what lessons can be learnt from elsewhere in the UK including Hull and Scotland where pilots have been very successful. Ministers are aware of the campaign which has been described by Minister for the Cabinet Office Ed Miliband as ‘ingenious’.

In my view it is not ingenious, it's obvious and I’ll continue urging ministers to use their loaves. Ensuring our children eat brain food, not fast food will pay dividends in the long run. It might not be as cheap as chips but to an electorate suffering rising food prices it might just look too good to resist.