Lessons from 2020: Extending free school meals has changed government policy on hunger and is a step towards ending child food poverty
It is hoped that the government will extend the National School Breakfast programme and support the cross-party School Breakfast Bill, writes Rob Halfon MP. | PA Images
There is more the government could do to cement policies that tackle food poverty in the long term. 2020 might just be the year we started strengthening our social capital.
It may be hard to believe at present, but the pandemic may lead to some positive changes in our society. Covid-19 has exposed existing social injustices that have been ignored for too long.
A poignant example is child food insecurity. For years, we accepted the policy of free school meals during term time and occasional grants to food charities as enough. But the campaigning nous of footballer Marcus Rashford, supported by a number of Parliamentarians across all sides of the House, has changed policy on hunger, not just for Christmas, but for the long term.
The government has now committed £170m for local authorities to provide food to those most in need over the holidays, an uplift to Healthy Start vouchers and the extension of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme, worth £220m. Not only will children receive a nutritious meal but also academic support, sports and wellbeing activities.
It is hoped that the government will extend the National School Breakfast programme and support the cross-party School Breakfast Bill, led by Emma Lewell-Buck, to ensure all disadvantaged children have a healthy start to their school day. Breakfast clubs alone have been shown to boost educational progress by two additional months.
The government has committed £170m to provide food to those most in need
There is more the government could do to cement policies that tackle food poverty in the long term. First is to redistribute the £330m+ annual revenue from the so-called ‘Coca-Cola tax’, the levy introduced in 2018 on sugary drinks, to child hunger programmes.
Second, is to digitise Healthy Start vouchers so that all eligible recipients can access available support (national take-up was just 47% in November).
Finally, the Department for Work & Pensions should take into account the cost of buying and preparing a nutritious meal, in line with the government’s own Eatwell Guide, when determining universal credit.
2020 might just be the year we started strengthening our social capital. In a few years’ time, we may look back and say that 2020 was the year our country changed for the better.
Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Committee.