School Lunches

Originally published on 6th June 2017 at TheEducator.com

With the UK’s general elections scheduled for 8th June 2017, the country’s political parties have been busy promoting their election manifestos, attempting to sway undecided voters their way.

The Conservative Party’s General Election Manifesto contains one pledge which will have a huge impact on school children across the country – and that is their plan to scrap universal free lunches for infant school children in England.

The Conservative Party has said that it will instead offer a free breakfast for all primary school pupils, which they argue is a more effective way of improving performance in the classroom. The millions saved by replacing lunches with breakfasts will then be ploughed back into school budgets.

Unsurprisingly, the pledge to scrap free school lunches, which will affect around 900,000 children from struggling families, has drawn criticism from educators, school leaders, nutritionists, parents and rival political parties.

One of the most vocal opponents to Theresa May’s plan to axe free meals has come from celebrity chef, and school food campaigner, Jamie Oliver, who labelled the plans a disgrace. The TV chef argued that, “It’s a fact. Children perform better after eating a decent lunch.”

Nick Clegg, the former deputy Prime Minister, who worked to develop the free lunch policy when he was part of the coalition government, criticised Theresa May’s plans explaining, “May’s plans would hit children’s health by depriving them of a free nutritional meal at school,” adding that, “Theresa May should take her inspiration from Jamie Oliver not Oliver Twist”.

Currently, thousand of young school children rely on free school lunches for their health and well being, and even with these provisions, only 16% of the nation’s children eat the recommended five-a-day of vegetables and fruit.

Furthermore, school meals are not just about providing basic nutrition. There is plenty of medical literature which supports the link between diet and cognitive function. Research from the US concludes that nutritious school lunches can improve student learning, and there is also evidence that free lunches significantly help improve the academic achievement of learners from lower income families, who rely on these meals.

About 900,000 children from struggling families will lose their right to free school lunches, including more than 600,000 young children recently defined as coming from “ordinary working families”, according to analysis for the Observer by the Education Policy Institute. Depriving these children of a free lunch at school undermines Theresa May’s own pledge to prioritise families that are “just about managing.”

It is also important to point out that the Tory party’s proposal to replace lunches with free breakfasts is ill conceived and poorly planned. Firstly, only a small percentage of young children arrive at schools early enough to take advantage of free breakfasts. Secondly, schools would need to employ teaching assistants to monitor those students who do arrive in time for breakfast, a massive additional cost which will no doubt be left to individual schools.

Another substantial problem with Theresa May’s proposals include a mammoth disparity between the realistic costing of the breakfast programme and the figures announced by the Tory party.

The Conservative party’s manifesto claims that they will provide free breakfasts for all primary pupils at a cost of £60 million a year. However, with 4.62 million primary school pupils nationwide and 190 school days per year, this amounts to a breakfast budget of less than 7p per meal. Aisling Kirwan, the founding director of the Grub Club, a social enterprise which provides cooking lessons for pupils in poorer areas, said that a basic nutritious breakfast of porridge with milk costs 25p per pupil, while a more filling breakfast of bacon, sausage, egg and bread, costs 85p per pupil. A breakfast costing 7p will not provide any nutritional benefit whatsoever.

Another vocal critic of the scheme, has been celebrity chef, Henry Dimbleby, who called the plans to scrap free school lunches an, ‘”absolute betrayal, not only of our children, but of our headteachers, who have been misled.”’ Dimbleby argued that the country’s schools had been misled into ‘wasting millions’ on new kitchen facilities at the encouragement of the former Conservative education secretary Michael Gove, who wrote to all headteachers to encourage them to invest in new kitchen.

Three years ago, children at Haddenham St Mary’s Church of England School, in Buckinghamshire, celebrated the opening of their new kitchens with celebrity chef Raymond Blanc. However, that investment now appears wasted and the head teacher says she will have no choice but to close the new school kitchens because the school will be unable to cover the costs if the plan to cut free hot lunches goes ahead.

Another concern is that the Tories’ plan to scrap free lunches will lead to more than 16,800 catering job losses,

Providing breakfasts to students is, in itself, a good idea, however it shouldn’t come at the cost of losing free lunches, it would be better offered as additional support to lower income families. The whole point of school meals is to ensure that every child has the nutrition needed to learn across the whole day, and lunches provide the best chance to give pupils the protein and vegetables they need, in contrast, breakfast are usually just cereals with sugar.

With just days to go and the Conservative party’s lead in the polls narrowing, this unpopular policy may well be one more reason for voters to reject Theresa’ May’s government and vote for either Labour or the Lib Dems, parties which have pledged to extend free school meals to all primary school children.

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