Free for all

NICK CLEGG’S pledge to extend free school meals could be hugely important – if the Lib Dem leader gets the details right.

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The cost of living crisis has dominated the front pages recently, so it was inevitable that the main political parties would unveil bold plans to help hard-up families at their autumn conferences.


In Manchester we saw the Tories pledge a £500m tax break for married couples, while the previous week Labour had vowed to freeze gas and electricity prices for 20 months. But from a food industry perspective the most eye-catching promise was a commitment from the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, to extend free school meals to all children in the first three years of primary school. The deal, which was a condition of the Lib Dems’ support for the marriage tax break, will more than treble the number of children eligible to receive school meals to around two million.


School meals have been a politically divisive subject ever since the Education Act of 1906 allowed (but did not require) local authorities to provide free school meals to children, and unsurprisingly the response to the new policy has been mixed.


Supporters, such as Henry Dimbleby, co-author of the recent School Food Plan, praise the shift away from an “us and them” culture in schools to a culture where lunch becomes a shared experience. Critics, however, complain of a bad use of public money and argue the policy amounts to a subsidy for children of affluent parents.


From a purely economic perspective the second argument has merit; however, the mistake its proponents make is to measure the value of food provision in purely monetary terms. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that diet has a direct correlation with productivity. If children, regardless of their affluence, perform better in school because they are eating a healthy meal every day then the value to society cannot be measured in pounds and pence.


The effect on the culture of the school is also intangible. If anything the universal provision of free food will foster a culture of equality and remove the stigma that education professionals say affects children who currently qualify for free meals.


There is evidence too that providing free meals to children can result in them making better choices. A recent research project published in the Public Health Nutrition journal found that, when given a choice of meals, free school meal students were more likely to choose the more nutritionally valuable dish of the day than children who paid for their meals.


And it’s not just children who benefit from consistent food provision – employers also recognise the important role diet plays in the workplace. Google’s policy of giving free meals to staff may seem like an act of frivolity from a filthy rich corporation, but in fact it is the latest in a long line of progressive companies to make the link between food and productivity.


More than a century ago Seebohm Rowntree created one of the first staff canteens in his father’s confectionery factory in York as a means of preventing workers from going home and getting drunk at lunchtime. By staying on site and eating a good meal their productivity levels remained as high in the afternoon as the morning – almost unheard of in Victorian times.


So consistently available food at lunchtime is unquestionably a good thing, particularly for children for whom the school dinner may be their only proper meal of the day. But Clegg’s promise is short on detail, and in order to be a fully rounded policy certain safeguards must be put in place.


Most important is that there is consistency in the quality of free school meals. It is vital that nutritional standards apply across the board. The standards that Labour introduced for food in primary and secondary schools don’t apply to academies and free schools, meaning many parents have few guarantees over the quality of the food being provided for their children.


Budgets also need to be ring-fenced so councils don’t cut corners in their efforts to meet their obligations to pupils. A recent investigation by the Sunday Times found that the budget for ingredients for meals in primary schools varies from 56p to £1.04 per pupil. In this respect, caterers have a role to play by working with local authorities to come up with creative menus which meet nutritional guidelines while hitting acceptable price points. Regression to using the cheapest ingredients will make a mockery of what has the potential to be a hugely important piece of food policy.