Free school meals

Due to the complications that Coronavirus caused, and from pressure from high profile football star Marcus Rashford, the government agreed to extend free school meals scheme over the summer holidays.

The government agreed to give those who are usually able to get free school meals, vouchers instead, at the value of £15 per person per week, for the 6 weeks that they would have been vacant from school to help parents feed their children.  

The malnutrition and underfeeding of the younger generation is no alien concept and neither is the idea of the “nanny state” providing meals to those who are born into families who don’t have the facilities, funds or knowledge to provide a nutritious and balanced diet.  

Since the 1870’s when school became compulsory, students were turning up hungry with no food. At the time philanthropist approaches arose, most from teachers themselves using personal funds, in an effort to alleviate the students suffering.  
These acts of kindness encouraged the government to pass the provision of meals act in 1906 which allowed local educational authorities to provide free school meals funded out of tax payer’s money. 

 It was estimated around 7% of pupils aged 3-11 benefited from this scheme at the time, although it was not until 1944 that British parliament would pass an act making it mandatory for all local education authorities to provide a nutritionally balanced meal to every school child.   

These massive efforts implemented by the government proved to be too costly and in 1949 they allowed educational authorities to charge a sixpence per meal, the approximate cost of the raw ingredients used to make the meals, while still allowing those most in need to have free meals. 

 According to one source, £1 in 1950 would equate to £34.49 in 2020, following the decimalisation of currency this means the sixpence or 6d which got changed to two and a half pence would be worth approximately £0.86 in 2020.  

This was subsequently met by more price increases for sums up to 1-shilling (5p) and 9d (3¾p). These price increases went on till at least the 1970s and at the final sum of 1s and 9d, a school meal would have cost £3. 

It’s clear that money is a big motivator in this subject and no wonder the government could not sustain feeding every student with an estimated 6,298,000 students attending school in 1935 and 7,601,000 in 1955, and 1945’s statistics missing.  

The country’s population is always on a steady increase with the number of students in 2019-2020 reaching 8,890,357. This is an increase of 71,100 from the previous year. 

The government paid out a total of 120 million pounds over the course of the six weeks of school holiday that they extended the free school meals, which sounds like a lot but still only give 17.3% of the families most in need a helping hand. 

In England, around 1.3 million children claimed free school meals in 2019.  

The British parliament has recently denied the extension of the scheme past the summer holidays.

In an interview Boris Johnson defended the government’s stance when he stated that he was “very proud of the support that we’ve given” he continued to say he “understands the issue of holiday hunger” he said “we don’t want to see children going hungry this winter, this Christmas, certainly not as a result from any inattention from this government, you’re not going to see that”.  

In response to Rashford’s efforts, Boris said “What he’s doing is terrific”, in relation to ‘holiday hunger’ he stated “The debate is, how do you deal with it” and in another interview, he welcomed Marcus’ “contributions to the debate around poverty”. 

While the extension of free school meals over the holidays seemed to be short-lived, the government did increase universal credit by £20 a week in April to help alleviate the pressures of poverty.  

The prime minister stated, “we think that is one of the best ways you can help families in this tough time”.  

After the government briefly dismissed the idea for the autumn half term, they have done a swift turnaround and have offered free school meals during all school holidays until April 2022.  

The surprise turnaround has given the families of children eligible a payment of £27 for every child, every fortnight starting from the beginning of December.  

The government’s efforts to cover free school meals until 2022 has reportedly cost £400 million and is said to help those families most in need with meals and help with their bills. 

Within the allotted funds there is £16 million designated for food banks and an increase of “Healthy Start” payments which go to low-income pregnant women or those with children under four, the payments will increase from £3.10 to £4.25 starting April 2021. 

The move was well-received by campaigner Marcus Rashford although he did convey his concern for the families that would miss out on help.  

This is not surprising, for a child to be eligible for free school meals their household may have a maximum income of £7,400 a year after tax, not including any benefits. This is a small portion of those who may be seen as deprived, take for example Northern Ireland with the threshold for being eligible much higher at £14,000. 

This means that a total of 1.4 million children qualify for free school meals in England, this equates to 17.3% of the student population. In Scotland, there are 89,000 students eligible for free school meals which is 17%, in Wales, there is 20% of students eligible for the scheme. Although with Northern Ireland’s higher threshold 28% of pupils are eligible for free school meals.  

The £400 million funds is a bold move from number 10 and let’s hope it’s here to stay and there isn’t a repeat of Margret Thatcher’s infamous milk snatching once there is somebody else in power. 

These measures do go leaps and bounds for those who are already eligible for free school meals, the question is what about all the families who earn over £7,400 a year and still feel the effects of deprivation?  

What about those without children who don’t get that much needed £27 a fortnight, which would surely help feed themselves in the process. 

Well, for those who cannot feed themselves, the last line of defence in this country is food banks, pre-made parcels of food which can last about 3 days being distributed to those who need it most.  

Food banks are non-profit organisations that rely on government funding, donations of money, or food, and who benefit from food waste programs which helps repurpose excess food from supermarkets that have not been sold.  

This year has been especially hard on the foodbanks and people’s mental wellbeing whilst their jobs hang in the balance due to the worldwide pandemic.  

Food banks have been used more this year than any other with a reported 59% increase in demand for emergency food between February and March. The number of people using a food bank from 2019 to 2020 has reached 1.9 million. 

                                                 Graph of food bank use since 2008 

There has been a gradual increase of use over the years due to decreased amounts of earnings or peoples benefit payments not covering their bills.  

The food stocks in the food banks such as Trussell Trust have been able to keep up with the demand with help from the major supermarkets and with help of volunteers who found themselves at a loose end on furlough.  

This is the picture of modern poverty and the numbers of people who are feeling the effects of deprivation are on the rise. 

As more and more people are finding themselves without enough money to feed themselves the government has stepped in to take action.  

In 2019 more than 100 of the biggest names in food, including all of the UK supermarkets signed a pledge to half food waste by 2030 

The movement comes from the fact that as of 2019 there is 10.2 million tonnes of food and drink that are wasted every year after leaving the farm gate, additionally, it is worth noting that there are an estimated 3.6 million tonnes wasted at the farms themselves with 2 million tonnes of this getting repurposed as animal waste or redistributed to charities and various other ventures. 

There are 1.6 million tonnes of wasted produce at farm gates includes food that is suitable for human consumption but is not cosmetically up to the standard that the supermarkets set. 

There is definitely a place in society for the use of surplus “waste” food, in the form of odd-shaped vegetables and non-perfect factory foods, to feed those who cannot feed themselves. 

While there have been some dramatic improvements on how we think about food waste and food poverty there is still a long way to come. 

The systematic repurposing of food should be at the forefront to the fight against food poverty until a zero-waste food economy has been established simply because it is the most efficient route to go down. 

Free school meals and food distribution through food banks is essential in society to give those most vulnerable a better chance at not falling victim to the poverty trap. 

There are a number of benefits that a person gains from a good nutritious meal such as improved mood and lower cortisol levels (Stress) as well as better weight management and a greater ability to focus.  

The children who are not being fed are not just those on the line of being eligible for free school meals, it is those who have single parents or those who are working two jobs and packing their children a lunch is the last of their priorities. 

It is those families who barely eat, let alone nutritious meals, those who have hordes of cheap chocolate bars and crisps in the cupboards. 

It’s those parents who feel that they don’t have enough money to give to their children for food and pay their rent, electricity and water bills. 

Those parents who are heavy drinkers and smokers who have not developed the capacity to look after their children. 

The free school meals are paramount for anybody who is struggling and should not be taken away from them.  

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