A leading children's charity has welcomed the Government's plans to give all infant school children in England free school meals, saying it will "make a real difference for children" and financially stretched families.
The Chief Executive at 4Children, Anne Longfield OBE, said:
This is a welcome announcement which is likely to be popular with parents and make a real difference for children. From what we have heard, it has the makings of the kind of policy that parents are looking for from all political parties, understanding the importance of nutritious healthy food and recognising the financial pressure families are under.
Regular, nutritious meals are crucial in supporting the healthy development of children. Importantly, helping in this way should provide some welcome relief to the finances of those families with young children who we know have been hit hard by the economic downturn.
The Government's plan to give every child at infant school in England a free meal will cost approximately £600 million
Disadvantaged students at sixth form colleges and further education colleges will also be eligible for free school meals from September 2014.
Full details on the scheme's funding will be announced in the Autumn Statement 2013, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the new policy giving all infant school children a free school meal in England was the first step in fulfilling his ambition to provide free school meals to all primary school children.
Mr Clegg said: "For the Liberal Democrats, this is a first step: my ambition is to provide free school meals for all primary school children. Another reason we want to get into Government again next time round."
The Deputy Prime Minister said free school meals would help "give every child the chance in life they deserve."
Free school meals for infant children could substantially improve academic performance, a recent report suggested.
The School Food Plan, conducted by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, found that, in pilots where all children had been given a free school dinner, students were academically months ahead of their peers elsewhere.
Between three and five per cent more children reached target levels in maths and English at Key Stage 1.
Families will save £400 a year per child as a result of the Coalition's plan to offer free school meals to all infant schoolchildren in England.
Every child at infant school in England will receive a free school meal from next September, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has announced.
The Coalition will fund schools in England to provide every child in reception, year one and year two, from the ages of four to seven, with a hot and healthy meal at lunchtime.
Mr Clegg said the scheme would “give every child the chance in life they deserve.”
A spokesman for the Children's Food Trust said evidence shows that schools are offering healthier meals and children are eating more nutritious lunches since national school food standards were put in place.
The average meal is lower in fat, sugar and salt, more children are having water to drink instead of sugary drinks and the amount of fruit and veg on pupils' plates has gone up.
There's still a long way to go but the level playing field created by the standards has been key - and our studies show that when children eat a healthier lunch, they do better in the afternoons.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said if the Local Government Association has evidence of academies and free schools providing unhealthy meals to their pupils then it should be released.
Far from being paragons of nutrition, many maintained schools are not meeting food standards and are offering cakes, biscuits and fizzy drinks to their pupils.
Others have said they find the standards too bureaucratic, rigid, and difficult to administer.
However, there is room for improvement across the board - that is why we have asked independent reviewers to consider the best way to help all schools offer good, well-balanced food.
Chairman of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, David Simmonds, said the current Government strategy on healthy school meals has resulted in a "two-tier system".
Mr Simmonds said:
As champions for parents and children, councils with new public health responsibilities will want to hold all schools to account if they are ducking their moral duty to give students the best chance of living a happy and healthy life.
We now need Government to do its part by introducing an acceptable food standard that will allow councils to hold all schools to account for the nutritional quality of food they serve their pupils.