In the face of rising costs and growing levels of child poverty, calls are being ramped up for the government to take action over free school meal provision.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), the UK’s longest established independent research institute, says that amid the rising cost of living and the pressure it is putting on families, now is the time to make the case for specific policy invention in this area.

‘Timely and warranted’

Referring to the expansion of free school meals as “timely and warranted,” the research institute says: “There is extensive evidence that providing school meals to vulnerable children improves both health and learning outcomes. Providing a nutritious, hot lunch results in long-lasting health outcomes through improved diet quality and by reducing obesity rates. Free school meals also help children to learn by reducing children’s absences from school due to illness, and improving concentration and attainment while they are in school.”

The researchers point to a range of studies in the UK and worldwide that demonstrate the positive impacts free school meals have on diet quality, food security, BMI, and academic performance.

One study was carried out by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex (ISER). It found that among pupils at infant age entitled to universal infant free school meals (UIFSM), those who take up the available free school lunch have stronger educational performance at both age 5 and 7.

Positive return on investment

The NIESR also refers to evidence that suggests the expansion of free school meal provision in England would present a positive return on investment. An expanding free school meals cost benefit analysis by Impact on Urban Health estimates that expanding the scheme to all children in households on Universal Credit would generate £1.38 in economic and social benefits for every £1 invested.

The researchers also note how the Department for Education currently spends £470 per pupil on means-tested free school meals. Expanding the scheme to 800,000 more children would require an estimated additional £400m in funding annually.

“While undoubtedly a significant outlay, that would constitute only a small fraction of what government spends annually on welfare and education, and would offer good value-for-money,” says the NIESR.

The institute believes the decision on whether to invest in more free schools will ultimately come down to political priorities. The fact that Rishi Sunak’s five top priorities that he announced at the start of the year did not focus on addressing inequality or supporting the most vulnerable households during the cost-of-living crisis, is, according to the NIESSR, ‘telling.’

The institute’s warnings come as council leaders in Cumbria urge the government to take action on free school meals.

The council’s leader Stewart Young wrote to the secretary of state for education Gillian Keegan. According to the council leader, urgent action is needed on free school meals.

“[The] government is simply not doing enough, and it is the most vulnerable pupils who are losing out. Ensuring funding rises with inflation is an obvious first step, and making funding respond to changing numbers of eligible pupils could easily be done. The £1.5 million we allocated late last year was an attempt to plug the gap left by government, but we know it’s a sticking plaster. 

“Our call to extend free school eligibility also makes sense, given the overwhelming evidence of the importance of nutritious food in schools on pupil health and how they do in school.

“The secretary of state has the power to make all of these things happen. I hope she will see the sense in what we are proposing and take action,” said Young.

Similar calls are being made in Bedfordshire, where the Central Beds Council is set to lobby the government over eligibility and quality of free school meals.

Independent Flitwick councillor Gareth Mackey, who called on Central Bedfordshire Council to lobby the government, said: “Some 800,000 children living in poverty in England don’t receive free school meals because of the strict criteria.

“There’s a very low threshold of around £7,400 income per family for when children become eligible.

“This means that children who happen to be in food poverty in working families find it difficult to access help,” he added.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

Image credit: YouTube screengrab

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