The conversation around universal free school meals may not be new but this author can’t understand why it is still something up for debate. Myself and many other young people know and feel the importance of this topic and I would like to present a case contributing to the aim of settling this debate and urging swift action to implement free school meals in every school across the country.
According to UNICEF, 2.5 million British children live in food insecure households. Food insecurity means that the household does not have sufficient income either to purchase enough food, or to afford healthy food options for the children.
Having a ready meal for dinner is perfectly normal, but having a ready meal every day is objectively bad for your health in the long term, especially for growing children who need fruits and vegetables. Children who live in food insecure households do not have this luxury. And it is becoming increasingly clear, and made worse by the cost of living crisis, that access to healthy food is no longer viewed as a necessity but a luxury.
Take for example a Tesco own-brand butter chicken for £3. This is accessible, cheap and easy, although not necessarily nutritious if a child is eating these ready meals daily. Now consider a freshly made butter chicken: a portion of Tesco diced chicken breast alone costs £5.40. This is just too expensive for many households in the UK; it is simply impractical for food insecure households to buy these cost-inflated ingredients. Unfortunately ready meals are not enough to healthily sustain any human, especially a child. They are high in salt, fat and artificial additives, and low in other necessary nutrients. Therefore, one of the few consistent times when children from food insecure households have the opportunity to eat a freshly cooked meal is when they are at school.
Today, in England and Wales, 4 to 16 year-olds are eligible for free school meals if the annual income of their household is less than £7,400 after tax. This is simply not good enough. Even when a household earns beyond this bracket, it is not fair to assume that they can always afford school meals. As of last year, 1.9 million children are entitled (22.5% of the student population) in England, and while this is a notable number of children entitled to free school meals, many children are still excluded from this range. They have to suffer with an insufficient amount of food which can consequently lead to poor dietary choices and eating disorders. No child should know the pain of hunger or live with a bad relationship with food.
Without proper meals children find it harder to concentrate in classes, as cognitive abilities are affected by hunger and, subsequently, a child’s grade will slip. Hunger also affects not only physicality but sociability, as a child experiencing hunger may feel ashamed or embarrassed because of this. This leads to social isolation, followed by stress and anxiety for the child.
Finally, hungry children suffer from basic lack of nutrition. They have poorer health, their developmental milestones are negatively affected, and they are risk of common childhood diseases.
Considering this reality, universal free school meals will benefit all young people, from children to teenagers. I implore all young people to write to local councillors, MPs and government officials to make a change for the better! Create petitions and marches in your community and gather momentum that the government cannot ignore!
Help young people all around the UK to have the basic human right to food by supporting the #FoodForLearning campaign.