As well as providing vital relief to disadvantaged children and families, free school meals are essential to ensuring children reach their full potential, writes Dr Jennie Parnham from the School of Public Health.
On 19th February 2023, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn, announced plans to provide free school meals to all primary schoolchildren (ages 4-11 years) in London.
In England only infant schoolchildren (4-7 years) are given universal free school meals (UFSM). For older children, free school meals are means-tested and are only available to households receiving Universal Credit (with incomes <£7,400/year). The remaining children must pay for school meals.
This policy will dramatically expand the current free school meal provision in London, reaching 270,000 children at a cost of £130 million. But what will this unprecedented policy announcement mean for children, their families, and our wider society?
The causes of this disparity are very complex. It’s also important to say that although it’s more likely, it’s not deterministic. Many children of all backgrounds have a healthy diet. However, unfortunately factors tend to cluster together, making a healthy diet less likely for some. Let’s consider a single parent with a young child. One-third of children in single parent households live in poverty and it can cost up to 75% of their disposable income to buy the recommended food for a healthy diet. This is because healthy food is three times more expensive than less healthy foods. In their neighbourhood, there might be more places to buy ultra-processed fast food than healthy food. Finally, they may have less time to prepare healthy food, as there are fewer helping hands at home. In this environment, many families find their options for healthy eating limited. (more…)