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Children At Risk Of "Poor Health" As Food Inflation Eats Into Free School Meal Budgets

The government provides £2.41 for universal infant free school meals and £2.47 for benefit based free school meals. (Alamy)

4 min read

Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside Kim Johnson has said a drop in the quality of free school meals is driven by high inflation and could put school children at risk greater risk of "poor health" as well as underachievement in school.

Soaring food inflation has seen the price of food and non-alcoholic drinks rise by the second highest rate in 45 years in the 12 months to April 2023 at 19.1 per cent.

But government allowances per school meal provided to children from families on low incomes have not increased accordingly - with an infant school meal costing £2.41 per head, a 7p increase from June 2022, an amount below inflation.  

"I have been contacted by suppliers and their industry body who are concerned about the viability of continuing to provide school meals, and all say the only way to sustain the business is to cut both portion size and quality," Johnson told PoliticsHome

She said it is vital that government increases the amount of funding it provides for free school meals in order to make sure children are receiving proper nutrition - alongside price caps on essential foods, and a relaxation of "post-Brexit barriers". New research by the London School of Economics (LSE) found Brexit has left housholds with a £7 billion cost due to trade barriers affecting food imports from the EU.

"Health experts have been sounding the alarm about the dangers to children’s health caused by poor nutrition," said Johnson.

"There is substantial evidence that lack of a healthy meal results in an inability to concentrate, meaning lower attainment, ultimately leading to more limited life opportunities."

While Johnson, who is on the left of the Labour party and has been critical of Keir Starmer, is calling on the government to immediately address free school meal funding she also said she would like to see her own party broaden its own commitments to free school meals. 

In September Labour announced it would introduce breakfast clubs for every primary school in England should it win the next election - but has stopped short of offering universal free school meals. 

"I’m obviously supportive of Labour’s proposal for breakfast clubs in every primary school, ensuring children have food in their bellies at the start of the day – and closing that non-dom tax loophole to pay for it is a very positive move," said Johnson. 

"But for many children living below the breadline, a hot meal at school may be the only one they have all day.

"I would like to see my party extend their commitment to children’s health and education to include provision of a hot free school meal – and to provide sufficient funding to cover the true cost of a meal that covers the minimum nutritional standards as a given."

Universal free school meals is a popular idea among a growing number of Labour MPs, with Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan in February announcing free school meals for all children in the capital for a year. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has also called for the party to put it on their manifesto going into the next election. 

Barbara Crowther, co-ordinator of the Children's Food Campaign at Sustain, told PoliticsHome that while many schools were adapting to keep meals as healthy as possible more funding was needed to ensure they are sufficient even in the face of rising costs. 

"Funding rates for both universal infant meals and benefit-related meals have fallen way behind inflation rates, whilst around one third of children living in poverty are not even entitled to free school meals under the current £7,400 earnings threshold," said Crowther. 

"The government urgently needs to fix school food funding, and evidence suggests rolling out properly funded, universal healthy school meals would deliver a huge return on investment from the improvements to family budgets, better health and educational outcomes and pupils’ future contribution to the economy."

Naomi Duncan, chief executive of Chefs In Schools, told PoliticsHome many school chefs "are just about managing" by swapping meat for lentils or pulses - but admitted "food inflation is a challenge". 

"What is problematic is that small schools are having to subsidise meals from their budgets - including covering the costs of providing meals for children who don't qualify for free school meals and are at risk of hunger," said Duncan.

"That is putting pressure on other parts of education. A headteacher framed it to me as 'do I subsidise food so that children who need it get a meal, or do I hire a new music teacher'.

"If government extended free school meal entitlement, urgently, schools would get an injection of cash for costs they are already in many cases covering."

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment. 

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