Why free school meal trials could be a cause for concern

04/09/2009 - 00:00
This week has seen the start of a two-year free school meals (FSM) trial for all primary school children in two areas of England. Despite this encouraging development, the Soil Association still has concerns.

The two-year trial will cost £40m and it involves pupils in County Durham and Newham in London, to see if behaviour, health and academic standards improve. The trial costs are being split between the authorities and the government. The Soil Association-led Food for Life Partnership is concerned that the two-year free school meal trials, launched today, are diverting the Government from the immediate priority, which is to extend free school meal entitlement to all families below the poverty line. Half of children living in poverty (1.2 million children) are not entitled to free school meals, because although free meals are available to children whose parents are on a variety of benefits, they are not available to poor working families that claim working tax credits. These families are paying over £300 on average per child, per year, for school meals. The Food for Life Partnership is also concerned that Government proposals for universal free school meals could come at the expense of the quality of the food and the dining experience. "It would be irresponsible of the Government to introduce free school meals without ensuring that schools have adequate dining facilities and overworked school catering staff have the hours and capacity within the kitchen to cope with free school meals to all," they said. The £1bn cost figure cited by the Government for universal free school meals is based on current take-up rates (i.e. 43%) and current meal prices. If 95% take-up followed FSM introduction, as in Hull, then the cost would actually be over £2bn, just for primary schools. So, if a £1bn FSM election pledge were made, and take-up doubled, the spend on meals is likely to be halved. Jeanette Orrey, Food for Life Partnership School Meals Policy Advisor, said: "I'm all for free school meals, but my plea to the Government is to first make sure schools have adequate dining facilities and overworked school catering staff have the hours and capacity within the kitchen to cope free school meals to all. The quality of the food and the dining experience must not be jeopardised in a rush to universal free school meals. Our Six Steps to Transform School Food Culture set out what is needed to make good school food accessible to all." Read the Food for Life Partnership report by clicking here.

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