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We Don’t Have to Starve Kids

Right now, a third of children in poverty are being denied free school meals — and the teachers feeding them often go hungry themselves. It’s a disgraceful state of affairs that shows the necessity of universal free school meals.

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A hot, healthy school dinner opens so many doors for the young people we teach. It helps them concentrate better in class, supporting their learning and ensuring they can grow and thrive in school. But too many children miss out on this vital support because of incredibly bureaucratic eligibility constraints, coupled with the fact that, to qualify, a family must be on an appallingly low income — less than £7,400 per year.

The result is that thousands who need this support are falling through the cracks. Economic inequality in Britain today is stark and growing, and structures itself along demographic lines that entrench other forms of inequality, too: 47 percent of Asian children and 51 percent of Black children are now in poverty, with 44 percent of children in lone parent families also growing up poor. In this already disgraceful situation, it is an added insult that one in three children living in poverty in England are considered ‘too well off’ to access free school meals.

Our members in the National Education Union (NEU) are seeing the consequences of these draconian rules first-hand. Across the country, they tell us they are having to feed hungry children from their own pockets, even while many are struggling to make ends meet themselves.

This cannot continue. It makes no sense that in one of the richest countries in the world, children are sitting in classrooms with empty bellies. It should not fall to individual teachers to plug the gap, just as it should not fall to already-squeezed school budgets.

Of course, teachers are not the only ones who feel this way. Today, the NEU has published the results of a poll conducted by Deltapoll of over 1000 parents in England. Those parents have come out firmly in support of extending free school meals to all children and ending the current means testing system, which not only excludes many of those in need but too often attaches stigma and shame to those who do qualify.

More than three quarters of parents surveyed support extending free school meals to all primary school children irrespective of household income. Nine in ten parents of children who had received free school meals at some point said they were helpful, because they saved the time and money that are too often tight. A vast majority of parents told us they saw free school meals as necessary to ensure no child is hungry (84 percent), and to improve health (80 percent) and education (79 percent) outcomes. And three quarters of parents recognised that free school meals will pay for themselves through producing better outcomes for children and increasing their lifetime earnings.

London’s recent free school meals roll-out to every primary school child in the city has been an incredible success, lifting children, families and communities up to the extent that the mayor has announced an extension of the scheme for another year. So why are the rest of England’s children missing out when such a simple solution stands to pull so many people out of the material realities of poverty?

The results of this poll make the choices facing Britain’s next government clear. The next prime minister could do something of consequence for the families of the millions of children who go hungry every day by committing to extending free school meals to all children in state primary schools in England — as London, Wales, and Scotland have done.

Labour, the party likely to form that next government, has committed to a cross-government child poverty strategy. It is also talking about education funding being a priority. Both of these things are welcome — but the scale of the problem facing our children still requires more ambition.

Free school meals for all primary school children is itself only one part of what must be a multi-pronged approach. The removal of the two-child benefit cap, too, would immediately lift 300,000 children out of poverty, and a further 850,000 children would be in less deep poverty. This approach would cost just one percent of the overall national welfare bill, about  £1.3 billion — small change when one considers  the £3 billion annual servicing costs for the Trident nuclear deterrent.

The next government could make the decision to end child poverty in this country. The policies to make it happen are there, and our polling makes it clear the public supports them. All it requires is a recognition that our young people are not an economic burden — they are the future of this country, and it’s high time we invest in them.