Universal Infant Free School Meals – why we need to keep them.

What a few days in British politics.

I won’t start rambling on about my views about the whole situation, but I will discuss how political upheaval can really affect public health policies as the expense of the UK’s health. Health cannot contine to be a stance politicians can drop as easy as they pick up.

School meals have gained lots of interest over the past decade or so, however following Theresa May’s plans to axe universal infant school meals after only 3 years of running – discussions and interest around the importance of school meals have been sigfniciantly renewed.

It’s really disappointing to see such an important policy dropped, for the only reason I could find was obviously a more cost-effective option became available. However, this isn’t the only time in history the Conservative party have shown a regressive attitude towards school meals.

The UK have had a longstanding history of providing school dinners to primary school children. Earliest records date back to 1879 in Manchester, where destitute and poorly nourished children were provided with free school meals. In 1906, The Liberal Government published the Education (Provision of Meals) Act, which allowed local authorities (LAs) to provide school meals – however, it was not a legal requirement to do so. However, LAs were slow to uptake the act and very few children were receiving free school meals. The 1921 Education Act set out edibility criteria’s for free school meals, however a miners strike meant the act was thrown off course and failed to make an impact.

1944 saw the introduction of the National School Meals Policy, which required school meals to provide a balanced and appropriate level of protein, fat and calories. It became a legal requirement to ensure all school meals were consistent with nutritional standards and children of low income households were provided with a free school dinner every day.

However, under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government, the provision of school food was damaged greatly. Under her first term, she cut funding for free school milk to all pupils. In the second, nutritional standards for school food were abolished and entitlement to free school meals ended for thousands of children in the UK in a move to cut costs. As a result, the standard of school meals reduced dramatically. So much so, a survey carried out in 1999 found that children during the rationing period consumed more nutrients with less fat and sugar compared to children growing up in the 1990s.

Jamie Oliver spearheaded the school meals revolution in 2004, through his ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’ series which revealed outside caterers were feeding UK’s children with energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods on a daily basis: turkey twizzlers, potato smileys, chips, pizzas and pies. Average ingredient spend per meal was as little as 40p. Gaining support from several sectors, parents and pupils, school meals became higher on the political agenda in the 2005 General Election. In response, new nutritional requirements which allowed for a more balanced and nutrient rich diet. Servings of deep-fried, battered and breaded foods were now only allowed to be served no more than twice a week.

Under the coalition government, Deputy PM Nick Clegg created the initiative ‘Universal Infant Free School Meals’ (UIFSM). All reception, year 1 and year 2 children of all backgrounds were allowed to claim free school meals – extending the entitlement to an additional 1.55 million children. After only 3 years, Theresa May announced in the Conservative 2017 Manifesto that they would scrap UIFSM and replace with free school breakfasts in the 2017/18 academic year, should they win the general election. As a result, 900,000 children from struggling families would lose their entitlement to a school dinner. The plans would further hit the 60% of Britons working in poverty, despite May pledging to prioritise those families who are ‘just about managing’. Whereas Labour and The Liberal Democrats have pledged to extend free school meals to all children. The Tories have argued free school breakfasts are more cost-effective and improve the performance of children in school. However, campaigners claim that not all children will make it in time for breakfast, yet all will be there to receive their lunch. The plans have gained a lot of negative publicity and several sectors have expressed their anger at the proposal.

Free school meals have had a turbulent history. However, in the face of a childhood obesity crisis, poverty and damaging health inequalities, we should be further investing and improving our school meals policy, not disinvesting. The importance of a hot, nutritious meal during the day for school children cannot be underestimated.

Why we should keep UIFSM:

  • Provide food security to children living in food insecure households.
  • Improves educational attainment, social skills and behaviour which helps children to become more healthy and productive adults. Thus, breaking the cycle of poverty and underachievement.
  • Food habits formed in early life largely translate into adulthood. Therefore, UIFSM supports the development of long term, healthy eating habits.
  • Helps families with the cost of living by saving £400/year per child.
  • Without UIFSM more children will be consuming packed lunches which are not regulated by nutritional standards. As a result, only 1% of packed lunches are meeting recommended dietary guidelines. To find out more about the status of packed lunches in the UK, read one of my Food Active blogs here.
  • UIFSM normalises healthy eating from an early age.
  • A nutritious, hot cooked meal during the day has been shown to improve children’s overall diet, not just in schools. Children who eat school meals had lower daily intakes of sugar, total fat, saturated fat and salt compared to those who don’t. m
  • Sitting down and eating together helps children broaden their social skills, table manners and supporting equality by levelling differences in backgrounds.
  • The health cost of cutting school meals will be far greater than the savings made.
  • Helps to reduce to stigma around school meals, as all children are treated equally in UIFSM.
  • Supports the catering workforce and provides a valuable source of employment; 21% of the workforce could lose their jobs under Theresa May’s plans.

Sign the Petition here and show your support for Universal Infant Free School Meals before yet another Conservative government prioritises cost-effective policies before health of millions of infants.


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