The Next Fight for Free School Meals

While the cost of living crisis forces families into food bank queues, a free school meal might be the only substantial food a child eats in a day – so their availability needs to be expanded urgently.

A 2018 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that a third of children were growing up in poverty. (monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images)

As I stand in front of the typical classroom and look at the children before me, it’s sobering to think that a third of them are living in poverty. In the UK, before Covid, poverty affected a staggering 4.3 million children. Since the pandemic, that figure has doubtless risen—and will continue to do so as the cost of living crisis deepens.

The Tories, of course, try to spin food poverty as a failing of the poor, expressing particular concern about their lack of budgeting and cooking skills. But those on the receiving end of the cost of living crisis know that this isn’t true. As inflation continues its steady climb and wages fail to keep pace, any savings made through budgeting in one area are instantly eaten up by price rises in another. The Office for National Statistics has noted that wages fell by 4.5 percent in April in real terms—the biggest drop since comparable records began in 2001.

As costs climb higher and higher, so too do profits. We should remember that this isn’t a crisis simply caused by Covid or Russia, but one caused by capitalism and greed. Large corporations continue to make billions while the working class of our country are plunged further and further into destitution and distress. The result, as always, is more families going without food just to make ends meet, more parents skipping meals so their children don’t go to bed hungry, more households forced to choose between eating and heating.

All this has a profound and predictable effect on education. Schools themselves are having to cut back as bills rise faster than budgets. If a child’s basic needs aren’t being met, it’s unlikely they will be able to concentrate on the formation of an oxbow lake or the effect of the Reformation on Morebath Church. Put simply, pupils cannot learn if they are hungry.

The government’s answer to this is free school meals, for those who fit the eligibility criteria. Statistically, one in five pupils receives free school meals. In some areas the figure is far higher, reaching up to a third in the North East. For some of this third, or that fifth, their free school meal might be the only substantial meal they eat in a day.

There are many, many more children, however, who do not qualify for a meal and are also going hungry. As a result, a letter from educational groups to MPs has now called for an expansion of free school meals to all of those whose families are on Universal Credit.

This is not the first time there has been a push for an increase in the amount of people covered by the system. The Labour Party previously committed to providing free school meals to all primary school pupils, paid for with VAT on private school fees. This would be a very welcome step, but I would go one further, and say they should be provided to all young people universally.

Yes, that means the children of wealthy parents would receive them, too. But isn’t that the case with all universal systems? The National Health Service is free at the point of use regardless of income, as is our system of state education. This unfairness could be easily rectified with a progressive system of income tax. Free school meals for all would ensure that no one missed out.

For infants in England, universal free school meals already exist. But funding this year has been raised by a miserly 7 pence per pupil, raising very real concerns that quality or indeed the size of portions will be cut. That proves that we need not only universal free school meals, but a system of provision that is properly funded and resourced. There seem few things more worth spending money on than the health and wellbeing of our young.

When the government is forced to face the reality of what’s happening in this country, its usual response is that feeding hungry children is too expensive. But why is there always money for bombs, and never for food? The socialist left is often accused of a lack of patriotism, but what’s patriotic about starving your citizens? True patriotism, love for your country, should mean loving its people—and that means looking after them.

It might be simple to solve the crises that have led us to this point, of course, if we had a fair economic system, or at the very least, a fairer system of taxation. The short-term windfall tax the government has introduced is a good start, but those who are reaping the rewards of our suffering should be paying their fair share. The largest oil and gas producers made close to $100 billion in first quarter of 2022 alone. The reason things won’t change is that these same people are often either in high office or donating large sums to those who are.

Previous fights can point the way toward our response. At the height of the pandemic, the trade union movement, along with other figures like Marcus Rashford, fought tooth-and-nail to get the government to provide free school meals in the holidays. Now, in the face of the cost of living crisis, it may be time to fight again.

There is currently a pay ballot looming for teachers. Our pay has not kept pace with inflation, which means we are looking at yet another pay cut this year. Make no mistake, the cuts to our pay and the growing number of children we teach coming to school hungry are interconnected struggles. Both are symptoms of a failing economic system designed only to protect those at the top.

That means this ballot, and the crisis that precipitates it, are also opportunities to show the government that we are prepared to stand up—over wages, over the callous way they treat children, and over the decisions that have left so many destitute. This, in simple terms, is our chance to demand that they do what is right, and make it clear that anything else—even one child going hungry—is unacceptable. By doing so, we may provide inspiration to the millions of other workers out there, helping to build a future in which no child has to come to school hungry in the first place. When we fight, we win.