Standing in the lunch queue, age 11, I was waiting for my free school meal like any other day, when my friend let out a heavy sigh: “Argh! Mum hasn’t topped up my dinner money card!”
I had no idea what he meant. Surely, we all just swiped our card and received a meal? Why would anybody need to “top up” their card? Oh – my 11-year-old stomach flipped. I suddenly felt less hungry. This was a conversation I couldn’t join in with; another reminder that I was different. We might have stood in the same queue, but that sigh reverberated across the gulf of social class between us, a child eating free school meals, and their peer who paid for them.
The moral case for extending free school meals to children across the country has long been clear. In England today, one million children living in poverty are excluded from free lunches. For many of them, that means not having a nutritious meal, full stop. This has huge negative impacts on children’s health and well-being. Dividing children by those whose families meet the draconian income threshold of £7,400 per year and those who don’t affects how they feel about themselves. Stigma does not need to be inflicted by others; free school meals kids tell us they feel it from constant reminders that they are different. They want to enjoy one hot meal a day with their friends, without feeling like a charity case. In that queue I felt yet another drumbeat of self-stigmatisation. It reminded the 11-year-old me that I was different.
But the question of how we make sure our children eat enough healthy food is not just one of ethics. It’s about how we create a society that is thriving – whether that’s in terms of health, education, economic growth or productivity.
It hardly needs repeating that children who eat nutritious school meals have better health, better academic performance and behaviour, and improved lifetime productivity. When all children are provided with delicious, nutritious, properly funded food in school it improves their health with the nutrition they need to thrive. Less than 2 per cent of packed lunches meet the same standards. The introduction of free school meals for all infants, for example, has led to a more significant improvement in body weight outcomes than any other intervention, including education or exercise schemes. Clearly this is good for children’s health and for the whole healthcare system.
Free school meals are key to breaking down the barriers to opportunity. A government-led study found that when a decent meal was provided for all children in a school, they made four-to-eight-weeks more academic progress over two years. And the least affluent pupils made the most progress. In Sweden, a lifelong study has been carried out on the impacts of providing school food for all. When all children were given a school meal, they had on average 3 per cent higher lifetime earnings. For poorer children, this rises to 6 per cent, meaning an investment in school food for all reduces inequalities for an entire generation.
For the first time ever, the benefits of free school meals to the economy have been quantified. Investing in a nutritious meal for every state school pupil in England could inject £41.3bn into the economy over the next 20 years, according to first-of-its-kind research commissioned by Impact on Urban Health and undertaken by PwC. That means for every £1 invested, an inflation-busting £1.71 would be returned. A further £58.2bn of wealth could come from indirect benefits through wider economic and supply chain gains. That’s around £100bn generated
for our economy – about the entire Department for Education budget.
As the general election approaches, it’s also clear that free school meals are a vote-winner. Recent polling commissioned by the School Food Review Working Group found that 68 per cent of the public are supportive of providing free school meals to all, starting with an immediate extension to those on Universal Credit. With campaigning heating up and ahead of Labour Party Conference, Keir Starmer is coming under pressure to commit to the policy, as governments in Scotland, Wales and London are. The polling also showed that 65 per cent of those who are considering voting for Labour would be more likely to do so if he were to expand provision. At the same time, 23 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters and 18 per cent of those who intend to vote Conservative would be more likely to switch to Labour.
It’s obvious: this isn’t a partisan issue. The mandate is clear.
If Labour wants to get into government and deliver its missions, it needs to enact policies like free school meals for all, which improve the lives of individuals while benefiting the economy and society.
Contribution to economic growth? Check.
Improving health to help create an NHS fit for the future? Check.
Breaking down the barriers to opportunity for kids from poorer backgrounds? Check.
At Labour Party Conference, Keir Starmer will surely find it harder and harder to ignore the truth that is staring him in the face. Let’s stop dividing up children in lunch queues. Let’s invest in our next generation so they can thrive.
About the School Food Review Working Group: The School Food Review Working Group is a coalition of over 30 organisations spanning charities, educational organisations, caterers, unions and academics, committed to working together to improve children’s health by reforming the school food system. Visit: schoolfoodmatters.org/school-food-review.
[See also: TUC chief: Tax wealth to fix broken Britain]