Posted on Oct 07, 2013 by Ruth Loftus
The leader of the Liberal Democrat party has recently announced that from the start of the next academic year, all children in the first three years of primary school in England will receive “a hot, healthy lunch” everyday at school, for free. In a statement last week, Nick Clegg said that this initiative will be an important way to “teach healthy eating habits young” and to raise educational attainment by focusing on diet.
School meals have long been a popular political discussion in the UK following Jamie Oliver’s focus on the lack of nutritional value contained in the average school meal. Oliver’s TV series was first produced in 2004, and for several years he lobbied the British government to increase spending on school meals from the tiny budget of 37 pence per child, in order to improve the quality of the food.
These latest school meal decisions have also been heavily influenced by spending, but this time the focus is on family spending. The average family budget in England has been getting tighter and tighter due to a number of factors including unemployment, cuts in benefits, and the rising costs of living. Nick Clegg said that the new free school meals for primary school children program would represent a significant annual saving for families: instead of spending an estimated £400 per year, per child, all children could be fed at school for no cost to parents.
Research has indicated that not only do packed lunches represent an additional cost to families, but that only 1 percent of parents prepare lunches which meet nutritional health standards. An online study conducted in 2010 found that lunchboxes often consisted of processed foods and high calories snacks, all of which were deemed terribly unhealthy. The study looked at the contents of 1,300 eight- and nine-years-old’s lunch boxes, and results showed that sweets and sugary drinks took precedence over fruit, vegetables and milk-based products.
Earlier this year, an online poll by the Children's Food Trust's poll highlighted another problem with the current packed lunch situation: children not having enough to eat. Based on responses from school, youth and health workers in England, survey compilers reported that 84.6 percent of people surveyed had experienced working with children who were not given enough food in their packed lunches.
In contrast to similar research conducted in 2010, this survey indicated that family budgets are being squeezed more and more, to the point that instead of filling lunch boxes with cheaper junk food, some parents are unable to fill lunch boxes at all. Researchers noted that sandwich fillings in particular were becoming more meager, with some children being given just a layer of margarine. The Children's Food Trust's poll also found that 68.1 percent of the workers surveyed had seen a rise in the proportion of families struggling to feed their children in the past two years.
Therefore, by making free, hot school meals available to all students under eight years old, the government can be sure that those youngest children are getting at least one nutritionally sound meal per day. Nick Clegg has emphasised the importance of giving young children the best possible start in life, and although one meal per day might seem like a small contribution, it is believed that this meal could have big educational benefits; the idea being that in order for children to do well, children need to eat well. These free meals will aim to provide a balanced diet which will aid concentration in class as well as overall growth and development.
Similar free school meal pilot schemes were rolled out in three different counties around the country under the Labour government, and the results indicated impressive and measurable improvements in performance. The pilot area of: Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton had promising academic improvements whereby 3 percent and 5 percent more children reached the target levels in maths and English at key stage 1, and 4 percent more children achieved the expected levels in English at key stage 2.
Despite the Liberal Democrats’ aim to improve the health and education outcomes for a whole generation, the free school meal announcements have not come without criticism. In the first place, the scheme is set to cost an estimated £600 million per year, which represents a cost of £10 for every single man, woman and child in Britain. This alone creates problems for educationalists who believe that this money could be invested elsewhere in education: to increase the number of primary school places, or to support better teacher training.
Other critics of the free meal plan are worried about the universal nature of the program. Until now, taxpayers’ money has provided means tested assessments to try to ensure that poorer families are given assistance and free school meals. As of next September, free school meals will be available to all school children, so even the 1 percent of parents who successfully provide nutritious and balanced diets for their children will pass that responsibility over to government policy and tax payers’ money.
Perhaps the most interesting debate is whether this new initiative will help improve primary school children’s overall understanding of nutrition and healthy eating. Jeremy Boardman, head of the Children’s Food Trust’s school support program believes that this policy needs to be complemented with other measures to ensure that children get a broader understanding of what healthy food is and why it is important. This might include cooking clubs, learning about flavours and nutrition, and combining food with other subjects like geography and history. Time will tell whether Nick Clegg can find additional finances for nationwide healthy eating schemes such as these.