Free School Meals – It’s a no brainer

How did we get to a situation where a child pretends to eat out of an empty lunchbox because they did not qualify for free school meals and did not want their friends to know there was no food at home? Where a child coming to school having not eaten anything since lunch the day before is so hungry they are eating rubbers in school? Where a child hides in the playground because they don’t think they can get a meal?

A free school meal can be life changing, and that isn’t an exaggeration.

It was the Liberal Democrats in Government who introduced free school meals for every infant school child – something which I and the party are incredibly proud of. We did it because free school meals offer a ‘triple whammy’ of benefits.

They save parents time and money, an important benefit as families battle with the cost of living crisis. Parents save an average of £10 a week on food and 50 minutes a week preparing it. They improve educational outcomes. When free school meals for all children aged 5-7 were being piloted in East London and Durham, pupils made around two months’ more progress in their SATs results than those in the rest of the country. And, it helps children to eat more healthily. Packed lunches are more likely to provide more calories from fat, saturated fat, sodium and sugar than school meals.

That is why Liberal Democrats believe free school meals are incredible and we should give one to every child in poverty, whether in primary or secondary school.

And it makes financial sense too. An analysis by PWC found that every £1 spent on free school meals for the poorest children generates £1.38 in core benefits. This includes boosting the lifetime earnings of those children by almost £3 billion.

We have a huge problem with poverty in this country. According to the Child Poverty Action group more than four million children are living in poverty in the UK. This means in an average classroom of 30, nine children will be living in poverty. The Food Foundation’s latest tracking found that 20% of households with children reported experiencing food insecurity in January 2024.

This problem of access to free school meals has been exacerbated by the Government’s refusal to change the eligibility criteria. The £7,400 earnings threshold to be entitled to free school meals has not increased since it was introduced in 2018, but should be around £9,300 had it risen with inflation. That change alone would see around 135,000 children brought into the scheme.

But we must not only increase access, we must make changes to ensure that every single child who is entitled to a free school meal takes it up.

In 2013, the Department of Education DfE estimated that around 14 per cent of pupils entitled to FSM were not claiming them. Since then the DfEhas not routinely collected information on the number of pupils that are entitled to FSM but do not make a claim. It is therefore largely unknown how many children are currently not receiving the benefit, but it is estimated that around one in ten pupils eligible for Free School Meals in England are not registered and so are missing out.

And the kicker is that as well as the children missing out on their meal, schools are unable to claim pupil premium and other important disadvantage funding. Auto enrolment is the obvious solution and would be an important step for either this or the next Government to take.

Free school meals are a simple, unintrusive way of ensuring that all children from low-income families have at least one well-balanced, healthy, nutritious meal a day.

The Government’s adviser on the National Food Strategy, Henry Dimbleby said “Hungry children cannot learn and cannot thrive. It is unconscionable in 2022 that this situation has not yet been addressed.”

We are now in 2024 and nothing has changed. Teachers are increasingly having to act as a fourth emergency service, consuming so much time, energy and resources dealing with issues beyond the school gates.

Extending free school meals is one way that we can restore the support network around our young people, by ensuring they have at least one hot cooked meal a day, giving them the energy to learn in the afternoon. Liberal Democrats would extend free school meals, beginning with every child in poverty, to save parents money, encourage healthy eating and give children the energy to learn. It’s a no brainer.

Munira Wilson MP

Munira Wilson is the Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, and was elected in 2019. She is also the Liberal Democrat Education, Children and Young People Spokesperson.