Saving the free school meal scheme

The School Food Plan was published in July 2013 as the result of an independent review of school food commissioned by the Department for Education. Written by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, founders of the Leon restaurant chain, the Plan is made up of actions and recommendations that aim to help head teachers increase revenue and school meal take up whilst improving school food culture and access to good food.
The broad aim of the Plan is to return to a golden age of school food; helping create a generation of children who enjoy food that makes them healthier, more successful and, most importantly, happier. Universal free school meals for infant pupils is one of the most widely-known and talked about initiatives to come from the Plan, but there is growing concern regarding its continued use.

Free school meals under threat
The Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) scheme is estimated to save parents of four to seven year olds around £400 per year, a saving that, on the surface, would be sorely missed if scrapped.
However, there is growing speculation that the free school meal policy is set to be axed in George Osborne’s November Spending Review, with the Conservatives never completely keen on the concept last year. The project’s initial proposal was criticised by various education centres who denounced the financial costs involved in installing the necessary kitchen facilities to support the strategy. Nonetheless, after all the money and time invested in implementing the programme, it is understandable that teachers would prefer to keep the system in place.
Many campaigners are refuting the threat to scrap free school dinners, including healthy school-meal-pioneer Jamie Oliver and Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron. Farron maintains that removing the initiative is not only ‘damaging to children’ but ‘an insult to our schools’. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver agrees it would be a ‘disaster’ if the cuts were executed.
As part of the Jeremy Corbyn’s new Labour Shadow Cabinet, Shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell has warned that scrapping universal school meals for infants will leave millions of children hungry. Powell has made it clear that her party is adamantly opposed to scrapping free school meals, which only came into place as a Liberal Democrat Policy in September last year.
She said: “Schools have, at their own cost, installed new kitchens to deliver this scheme. Yet before it can be properly evaluated for its impact on pupils performance at school, they are shutting the door. The Tories never liked this scheme – we all know that – but schools have gone to a huge amount of trouble and effort to deliver it. This will be a slap in the face for them and for the hard-pressed families it supports.
“This decision also underlines how little the government is protecting the education budget which is vital for the future success of our children and our country. This comes at a time the government is cutting tax credits for working families. This decision will see over three million families lose an average of £1,000 a year and directly increase levels of poverty in Britain.
“There is a very real risk that scrapping free school meals combined with tax credit cuts could see millions of children going hungry as a result of this decision.”
While the initiative has, for the most part, been a success, the strategy is roughly calculated to rack up around £800m per year. As voiced by Jonathan Simons, head of education at Policy Exchange, maintaining the UIFSM programme is not merely questioning the necessity of issuing free lunches to all pupils (regardless of wealth) but also realistically considering the question of value for money.
He said: “The principle of have a hot school lunch is a good one, but the question really is one of value for money. Is it the best use of £800m a year to pay for free school meals for all children, regardless of their parental wealth?”

Parent Satisfaction
On the one year birthday of the free school meal introduction in UK schools, the School Food plan released survey results on the value of free school meals. Carried out by Opinium Research, the survey showed that 95 per cent of parents of children taking up the offer are recognising the benefits for their child.
According to the research, 23 per cent of parents with children eating a free infant meal say the main benefit to their child is the greater variety of food they will now eat.
The same proportion claimed that they most value their child eating a proper meal at lunchtime, whilst almost 19 per cent commented that their child has enjoyed trying new foods. The opportunity to eat together and socialise with friends was identified as the most important aspect by 15 per cent of parents.
Professor Greta Defeyter, Director of Healthy Living at Northumbria University, said: “Introducing children to a wide variety of nutritious food is key to establishing positive eating habits and lays the foundation for their future health and wellbeing. Good nutrition is essential for growth and development and we know there’s a clear link between food and academic attainment – particularly in areas of poverty and among primary-age children.”

Memories of the milk Snatcher
The controversy surrounding the suggested cutting of free school meals is reminiscent of Conservative party action in 1971. In order to meet election pledges on tax, Margaret Thatcher, as Education Secretary under Edward Heath’s government, was branded as the Milk Snatcher following the removal of free school milk for over seven year olds – which was earmarked as saving £9 million a year.
Then Labour education spokesman Edward Short was quoted as saying that scrapping milk was ‘the meanest and most unworthy thing’ he had seen in 20 years.
The decision was widely criticised and many attempts to sidestep the policy were made. Authorities in South Wales famously served milk with a tiny amount of cocoa and claimed it was hot chocolate.

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