Government blasted over free school meals fiasco — by its own food adviser

Sophia Sleigh, NIcholas Cecil
·2-min read
Henry Dimbleby: Nigel Howard
Henry Dimbleby: Nigel Howard

The Government’s own food czar today lambasted ministers for not “doing enough” to feed hungry children.

Henry Dimbleby, the head of the national food strategy, also argued that giving struggling families “in-kind support” through providing food, education and holiday clubs was more effective than putting the same “small amount of money” into Universal Credit.

His hard-hitting intervention piled further pressure on Boris Johnson who has faced a wave of calls to do a U-turn to fund free school meals during half-term after a campaign led by England footballer Marcus Rashford.

It also came as The Standard revealed that the Cabinet Office spent more than £24 million on travel, hospitality and subsistence last year — almost exactly the sum estimated to be needed to pay for the meals.

Mr Dimbleby, co-founder of restaurant chain Leon, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This problem is real, it should go without saying it’s serious, it’s immediate and it’s going to get worse as employment gets worse and the Government isn’t doing enough. One in seven families already are reporting not to be able to afford enough food.”

Mr Dimbleby said he has been lobbying ministers to act. “But ... the dark centre of Government is invisible to me and I have no idea exactly what they’re working on as we speak,” he said.

Official documents show that the Cabinet Office, which includes No 10, spent £24.4 million on travel, hospitality and subsistence in 2019/20.

The Government has argued that supporting families through the benefits system and with £63 million more for councils is a better way than free school meals during holidays to tackle child hunger. A minister today hinted that Mr Johnson will use holiday clubs to end the row which has left the Government facing anger from the public and a growing number of Tory MPs.

Business minister Nadhim Zahawi suggested the Government could “learn from” the holiday clubs piloted over the summer. Mr Johnson is reportedly studying a plan by Mr Dimbleby. His Holiday Activity and Food programme was piloted across 17 local authorities.

Mr Zahawi told Sky News: “These are incredibly important pilots, and we will look at how we can learn from those and how we can build on this.

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