A Lifeline: Free School Meals

These last few months, as the Covid-19 pandemic surges to a second wave across the world, hitting heavily especially in the UK, the issues of child poverty and hunger are more urgent than ever. Thousands of families are struggling due to unemployment, cuts to working hours and inadequate furlough pay. Furthermore, in England, the government’s decision to eliminate the lifeline that free school meals represent to many children will further impact the livelihood of impoverished households.

The debate over this child hunger crisis first came to a head in June 2020, when the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford led a campaign exhorting the UK government to provide free school meals to children in England over the summer holidays. The petition was imperative given the impact of the pandemic: a poll by the Food Foundation found that more than five million people living in households with children under 18 experienced food insecurity after just one month of lockdown. The campaign was successful, preventing holiday hunger – when children lack adequate nutrition without the free meals provided at school. But as the autumn half-term break began, the government again refused to provide meal vouchers, rekindling the contention.

A Long History

When compulsory education was first introduced in the 1870s, thousands of children from low socio-economic backgrounds began going to school hungry. In 1879, Manchester was the first city in the UK to provide a solution to this problem, by giving out free meals to the children. Almost 30 years later, the 1906 Education Act was introduced, giving local authorities the permission to provide meals. Even then, very few were willing to do so.

In 1921, a criteria were set regarding which children were eligible for school meals, and once again, the act was not implemented by authorities. A survey carried out in 1936 showed that in 26 local education authorities, less than 15,000 children – out of a school population of a half million- were receiving free meals at school.

It was only after 1944 that the provision of free nutritious meals and milk finally became a statutory duty for local authorities. It was also stressed on the importance of choosing food and meals in the light of knowledge of what a growing child essentially needs for building a sound body.

In 1980, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government ended the provision of universal free milk, marking the beginning of a slippery slope. Shortly after, a new Education Act was introduced, which abolished the minimum nutritional standards requirement for school meals. This meant that local education authorities were only meant to ensure that children of families who received supplementary benefits and income support were, in fact, given free meals and food.

Next, Thatcher started to encourage the privatisation of the school meals services. Her government’s initial decision was compounded by the introduction of the Competitive Tendering Act, which allowed private companies to choose the least costly catering on offer. Unsurprisingly, these measures resulted in meals that were more cheap than nutritious.

Thatcher’s crusade continued to advance. The 1986 Social Security Act cut the number of children who were eligible for free school meals at a time of economic instability, where both unemployment and inflation were rising. During this same period, people were bombarded with aggressive advertising encouraging the consumption of unhealthy processed foods. These foods were sold at relatively cheaper prices, making it harder for families to budget for more nutritious expensive fruits and vegetables.

The changing food pattern – from healthy and nutritious towards fatty, sugary, and highly processed foods – was known as the “nutrition transition”. The increasingly high rates of this substitution had striking consequences and resulted in the average child in the 1990s being assessed as poorly nourished when compared to the average child back in the 1950s.

The Food Standards Agency was established in the UK in 2000 and worked together with local governments that had started developing policies for the promotion of healthy eating practices. This was supported by tight guidelines and regulations on healthy foods in schools, established with credit to a national campaign launched by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to improve the standards of food nationwide.

Hence, it was not until 2001 that school meals were once again forced to adhere to high nutritional standards. However, this still had little impact on the health of the youth, given that fewer children were overall entitled to food at schools. These measures were additionally only introduced after low-income families had already developed a preference for cheap processed foods during the long period of inadequate nutritional investment. Consequently, child obesity levels rose, even amongst the poorest of families.

The Current Fight

In October 2020, a motion to provide 1.4 million disadvantaged children in England with £15-a-week food vouchers during all holidays this year was voted down by the UK government. The decision was highly criticized given the small cost, relative to other government expenditures, of making a major difference to the poorest regions of the nation where affording food was already a struggle under normal circumstances. Government spending in response to the Coronavirus pandemic has already exceeded £210bn, where more than £175m were spent on consultants alone. This raises concerns about the government’s priorities, given that the amount spent on consultants is relatively a lot more expensive than funding £15-a-week food vouchers which would cost £21m a week.

Hence, the pressure on the UK government is growing nationwide, and even more so after its own advisory committee on social mobility showed its support of Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals. It claimed that the pandemic had placed this urgent issue into perspective, where the government needed to go further than ensuring that children are being properly fed. The country now requires a strategic plan to combat child poverty as well, especially when a report in 2019, before these exceptional circumstances, found that one in every three children (4.1 million) are living in poverty in the UK.

Nationwide Support

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have already supported this movement by introducing food voucher schemes. The petition created in October by the Manchester United striker calling for provision to continue in the holidays gained more than 1 million signatures in a matter of days. The campaign was also strengthened by much needed support from corporate giants such as Sainsbury’s, Nestle and Prezzo when they announced their stances on the issue, tweeting that they were “proud to stand” with Rashford. The UK’s largest charity hunger and food waste, FareShare, which distributes food reaching almost 1 million people in need a week, also partnered with the footballer to look over how food is distributed and to ensure no child is missed.

Thousands of businesses from every corner of the UK have responded to the appeal and stepped in to provide free meals to eligible children in their local areas over the half-term break. Many volunteer projects were founded, with the most influential being All of Us Together who aim to bring together the people in need and organizations willing to provide food through an interactive map that shows families all local locations at which free meals are being provided.

It is not only businesses that are standing up against the government’s recent decision. Rashford’s Club, Manchester United, has also announced that it will be distributing 5,000 meals – cooked at the Old Trafford kitchen facilities – delivering them to local school children across Greater Manchester during the half-term’s break. Mesut Ozil is another prominent figure in the English football industry who has joined Rashford in fighting the issue of child poverty. He stepped in to lead the distribution of over 1,400 meals daily to 11 schools in North London.

The Future of Child Food Poverty

Ultimately, the fight for free school meals is only a temporary solution to a much deep rooted, permanent problem: child food poverty. Addressing this urgent issue in the UK requires more than fighting about voucher systems and benefits schemes. Instead of humiliating and pushing vulnerable children and their families further into despair, we must address the root causes;unemployment and low pay, high living costs, inefficient social services, inadequate government policies, the lack of access to mental and physical healthcare, and discrimination.

For the time being, it is certainly moving and uplifting to see many local businesses – most of which have struggled intensely during the Coronavirus pandemic- going above and beyond to help those in great need. But there remains a bitter edge to appreciating the current situation when it is the people and community who are taking it upon themselves to fill the void left by the government’s failure to support its most vulnerable people.

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