IT’S ABOUT CHILDREN’S HEALTH
The case for Universal Infant Free School Meals and The School Food Plan is definitely not out of date. If anything it is just getting stronger.
The UK is facing an obesity epidemic; one in three children leave primary school overweight or obese. Eating a proper cooked meal in the middle of the day has been shown to have a positive impact on a child’s overall diet, not just at school. What’s more, only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional guidelines set for school food – without UIFSM, the number of kids eating packed lunches is certain to increase.
In 2009 the then Labour government ran a number of trials in Newham and Durham to test Universal Infant Free School Meals. The results were significant; take up increased, consumption of vegetables went up, consumption of crisps and soft drinks fell, academic attainment went up. Students in the pilot areas were on average two months ahead of their peers elsewhere.
Significantly, these improvements were most marked among children from less affluent families. There were hidden benefits too –teachers said UIFSM had helped to foster a sense of cohesion within their school.
There is also the question of quality of food. When John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby conducted their research for the School Food Plan they found take up of school food had remained stubbornly low, at 43%. That left 57% grazing on snacks and eating unhealthy packed lunches.
When the take up is low it isn’t possible to run a kitchen properly and serve decent food. There are fixed costs associated with running a kitchen. They remain the same if you feed 10 kids or 100. You still have to pay your cook, pay for utilities, insurance etc. So in order to get economies of scale, and make the food the best it can be, you need to drive up take up. Caterers have told us that school meal prices will have to go up if they are to survive at all, or else quality and standards will need to slip below the school food standards. There will be job losses in the catering industry.
IT’S ABOUT SUPPORTING FAMERS AND LOCAL PRODUCERS
And since 2014 the quality of school food has improved. The economies of scale afforded by UIFSM has meant that many caterers have been able to go well beyond the school food standards and look for higher welfare, higher quality ingredients. In 2016, 70% of London Boroughs were serving school meals that met the Food for Life bronze, silver or gold standards – and 9 of those Boroughs had managed to reach Gold standard catering, up from just 3 in 2013 prior to UIFSM. This is important as Food for Life requires caterers to source local and seasonal produce which means a secure income for British farmers. Without the guaranteed market of UIFSM, many local producers will struggle to survive.
Providing infants with free meals also has the benefit of relieving financial pressure on parents at a time when they are most cash strapped. It amounts to about £450 a year for a parent to pay for a school meal. This mounts up when you have more than one child, and may still also be paying for childcare for younger children.
SO CAN BREAKFAST BE BETTER THAN LUNCH?
The Government has said it will scrap UIFSM and offer all primary school children breakfast instead. Feeding more hungry children at breakfast time is good, and the School Food Plan argued for more breakfast clubs. However, the Government is using a Magic Breakfast/Education Endowment Foundation report from last year to argue that breakfast is as effective as lunch at improving academic attainment. But that study was not conducted to prove the case for breakfast over lunch.
What the study actually showed was that having breakfast and eating together improved behaviour and attainment. And so had a positive impact on the whole school.
And what is true at breakfast is just as true at lunch. All of the children in the study were ALSO having a free lunch. So it is disingenuous to argue that you can remove lunch in favour of breakfast and get the same result.
Common sense also says, children are far more likely to be in school for lunch than for breakfast. In Wales, where they offer free school breakfasts, fewer than one in five actually take up the offer.
WHY NOT JUST FEED DISADVANTAGED CHILDREN?
The Government tried to do that in a pilot programme in Wolverhampton and it had no impact on behaviour or attainment.
Two thirds of children living in poverty do not qualify for free school meals. The introduction of UIFSM has meant that these children are now able to eat a cooked meal at school every day, and do so seated with their peers and teachers, which has its own benefits.
There were 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2014-15. That’s 28 per cent of children, or 9 in a classroom of 30.
1.5 million poor children not eligible for free school meals nationally as their parents are in work and receiving tax credits, but on low wages. (ref: https://www.sustainweb.org/publications/london_food_poverty_profile_2015/?section=0 )
A more recent report (April 2017) from Feeding Britain All Party Parliamentary Group here estimate of 3mill in poverty, there are “two million who are disqualified from free school meals because their parents work for their poverty.”
Assuming that their definition of children is 4-16, then the loss of UIFSM (4-7), would affect approx. 500,000 poor children (and their families) no longer receiving free school meals nationally.
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