Health experts call for universal free school meals to tackle food poverty

A new report calls for school meals to be made free for all pupils in England's primary and secondary schools Credit: PA

A coalition of the UK’s leading health experts is calling on the government to roll out universal free school meals to tackle food poverty and poor nutrition amongst children and young people.

Health leaders joined cross-party politicians today to present the details of a new report which has been shared exclusively with ITV News. ‘The Health of the Next Generation – Good Food for Children’ looks at the benefits of expanding access to three schemes designed to improve childhood health and wellbeing: The Free School Meal Programme, the National School Breakfast Programme and the Healthy Start Voucher scheme.

The report has been led by the Faculty of Public Health, with input from a number of other organisations including The Royal Society of Medicine and The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Its key proposal is for school meals to be made free for all of England's primary and secondary school pupils.

The government says it needs to strike a balance -  ensuring school meals are available to those in need, while remaining affordable and deliverable.

Professor Kevin Fenton, President of the Faculty of Public Health said: “As a broad coalition of public health and medical professionals we are deeply concerned about the long-term health impacts facing our nation’s children as vulnerable families across the UK struggle to access nutritious food … We face a critical turning point for the health of our next generation – we must take action now.”

Credit: PA

The report describes the current situation as “unacceptable” and says over a quarter of households with children experience food insecurity. It warns that, without urgent action, increased levels of ill-health amongst the most vulnerable children is likely to persist into adulthood.

Sharon White OBE, Chief Executive of the School and Public Health Nurses Association said: “The school nursing workforce is increasingly witnessing the devastating impact of food poverty on children and young people’s health … We are seeing an alarming rate of school non-attendance, poor concentration, lethargy, achievement, mental health issues, childhood illnesses, and the scandalous rise of Victorian childhood illnesses such as scurvy and rickets.

“Our decision-makers have it within their gift and power to urgently improve this …. the health of our children and our nation depend on it.”

In England, all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 are eligible for free school meals. For most of the country, it changes from year 3 onwards. Free school meals are then offered to those with parents or carers on certain benefits or very low incomes.

Children in some areas, such as London, currently have universal free school meals in primary schools, or in both primary and secondary schools.

The government has pointed out that offering free school meals to all pupils in England would carry a very significant financial cost, quickly running into billions of pounds. Those behind today’s report estimate it would cost around £2.5 billion each year.

The contents of a new report which calls for urgent action to tackle child food poverty have been shared exclusively with our reporter Lauren Hall

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department for Education told us: “We want to give every child the best start in life and ensure that free school meals are available to those in need, whilst remaining affordable and deliverable for schools.

“We understand the pressures many households are facing, which is why we have more than doubled the number of children eligible for free school meals, with 2.1 million more children receiving them compared to 2010.

“We have also put further protections in place to ensure children who need them can continue to access free school meals, even if household circumstances change.”

The government currently spends over £1 billion a year on free school meals.

The health experts behind today’s report warn it is not enough, arguing the country is paying a much higher price in terms of the impact on children’s health, education and future prospects.

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