Over 90% of schools believe that pupil health and nutrition would be impacted by the potential withdrawal of free school meals for all infants, according to new research.
The survey by the Soil Association’s Food For Life programme found that three in five schools believe that pupil attainment would suffer if the policy was enacted.
It also showed that 37% of schools in England fear that their school meal service will close if free school meals are slashed, a figure that rises to 47% if it is a small school with its own kitchen.
The pledge to cut universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) was a standout policy in the Conservative manifesto. The Conservatives said they did not believe that giving school lunches to all children free of charge for the first three years of primary school – regardless of the income of their parents – was a sensible use of public money and proposed instead the universal provision of a free school breakfast for primary school children and the continued provision of a free lunch for children from low-income families.
Less than 4% of schools, however, believe that an offer of a free breakfast for all primary school pupils is a good alternative to a hot lunch, according to the survey.
Under the Conservative policy, Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, claims that research shows that 1,707,400 children in England aged four to seven would no longer receive free school meals, including 251,488 children who live in poverty.
LACA, the Lead Association for Catering in Education, added that 16,800 jobs in the catering sector could be lost, equivalent to 21% nationally, if the proposal is acted upon.
Jamie Oliver, who has been campaigning to save UIFSM, said cuts to free school meals would be “a huge backwards step for children’s health”.
James Cashmore, director of Food for Life at the Soil Association, added: “Scrapping free school meals for all infants would also mean absolute economic disaster for many school kitchens, with complete closure predicted in around two in five schools - many of whom stretched their own budgets to invest in upgraded facilities and support the policy in the past three years."