Hear us on free school meals, charities urge government

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has been urged to take action (Stefan Rousseau) (PA Wire)
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has been urged to take action (Stefan Rousseau) (PA Wire)

The free school meals scheme must be expanded to all children in households on universal credit to combat the “devastating impact” of the cost of living crisis, ministers have been told.

More than 35 healthcare leaders and charity bosses have written to Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan demanding an “urgent” expansion of the free school meals scheme to “improve children’s nutrition and protect their health”.

About 210,000 pupils in London live in households that rely on universal credit but miss out on free school meals. Health experts have warned that children will be more susceptible to cancer and infectious diseases without action to improve nutrition and combat hunger.

The signatories write that good nutrition “lies at the heart of health and wellbeing for children and young people”.

“Without it, health outcomes worsen as do children’s life chances, as well as pressure on the NHS. Investing in the free school meals scheme would have positive economic benefits.”

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

In the letter, they cite research conducted by the Food Foundation showing that levels of food insecurity among households with children have more than doubled since January, reaching 25.8 per cent in September 2022.

It concludes: “Every day, healthcare professionals see the impact of hunger and malnutrition in their work. We believe all children in England should be guaranteed access to the food they need to live healthy lives.”

The signatories include Dr Camilla Kingdon, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, as well as Pat Cullen, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.

Dr Sonia Adesara, a GP in Tottenham and health campaigner, told the Standard: “There are more households who are struggling financially and that will get worse this winter. In my practice I hear parents talk about how they are struggling to make ends meet and buy healthy nutritious food, which is more expensive than junk food.

“Children are also going hungry, and that can impact their education and ability to learn.”

She added: “We are a wealthy country. Offering children healthy food should be one of the basic things we are getting right.

"Children who eat an unhealthy diet are more likely to be obese or develop diabetes and cardiac problems in the future, so we are setting these children up to fail in life by not giving them a nutritious meal at school.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “We have expanded access to free school meals more than any other government in recent decades, which currently reach 1.9 million children. We are also investing up to £24m in our National School Breakfast Programme, which provides free breakfasts to children in schools in disadvantaged areas.”