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  • Caoimhe Glover

The Free School Meals Scheme: What Went Wrong?

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

While Boris Johnson claimed that no child should go hungry during the holidays, his cabinet denied the provision of free school meals during the Easter and summer holidays, mid-term break and Christmas holidays in 2020. All of these decisions were later backtracked as a result of campaigns led by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford.

This article will explain the scheme and why it exists, investigate how the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have affected the scheme, and explore the government’s handling of the situation.

The free school meals scheme: an overview

The earliest record of a programme that bears resemblance to today’s free school meals scheme was in 1897 when the city of Manchester began to provide free hot meals to schoolchildren who were at risk of malnourishment. A wider rollout didn’t come until towards the end of World War II when laws were passed in 1944 that required all local authorities in the UK to provide free nutritious meals for schoolchildren.

The free school meals scheme exists to help children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. This is because if children are malnourished and become too hungry to concentrate properly during lessons, it can have a detrimental impact on their academic performance. Children of all ages from nursery to sixth form may be eligible if they live in households receiving income-related benefits, including income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, or universal credit. Although eligibility varies slightly between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because the nations set their own rules, the common goal is to prevent children and young people from going hungry during the school day.

For the school year 2019/20, 1.4 million children qualified for free school meals in England (17.3% of the student population). In Scotland, the equivalent figure was 263,646 (38.1% of pupils). In Wales, it was 85,731 (18.2% of pupils) and in Northern Ireland 96,686 pupils were eligible (28.4% of the student population).

"the scheme can be a lifeline for families who are struggling to get food on the table"

The need for free school meals stems from the levels of income poverty and food poverty in the UK. The Social Mobility Commission published a report in 2020 in which it estimated that 4.2 million children live in relative poverty in the UK. A 2018 report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that 2.2 million people living in the UK were severely food insecure – the highest rate in Europe. Whilst the free school meals scheme does not get to the root of these issues, it can be a lifeline for many families who are struggling to get food on the table.

The two-fold effect of the pandemic

The UK’s series of lockdowns have affected the free school meals scheme in two key ways.

Firstly, the number of children claiming free school meals increased as a result of parents struggling financially due to the economic effects of the lockdowns. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the UK’s unemployment rate rose to a five-year high of 5.1% in January 2021, 1.3% higher than the same time last year. High levels of redundancies have meant more people are in need of financial assistance from the UK Government. The Claimant Count – the number of people claiming benefits, principally for the reason of being unemployed, and are therefore receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit while searching for work – was 2.6 million in January 2021. This is an increase of 109.4% since March 2020. Analysis by the Food Foundation based on research that took place from August to September 2020 estimated that a further 900,000 children in the UK may have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic. This number is only likely to have increased since the research was carried out.

"a further 900,000 children in the UK may have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic"

The second effect of the lockdowns on free school meals was that school closures meant that meals could not be provided to children as they usually would be. It goes without saying that hunger did not disappear just because schools were shut. So, in the first lockdown back in March 2020, children who were eligible for free school meals received them in the form of food vouchers. The first issue arose, however, around the Easter holidays when local councils called on the UK government to keep the scheme going during the school break. The government told councils that they could continue to provide free school meals during the break if they wanted to but would have to find the money themselves. However, a campaign was launched by the Headteachers Roundtable which resulted in the government making a U-turn on its decision and extending the scheme to the Easter and May half-term breaks.

Marcus Rashford 2-0 UK Government

Despite the U-turn, it would appear that not a lot was learnt by the government. Prior to the summer holidays, it yet again decided against extending the scheme to cover the break from school.

This time, a campaign against the decision was led by Marcus Rashford largely due to his reliance on the scheme during his time at school. He wrote an open letter to MPs which was featured in The Guardian to ask them to reconsider their decision. Despite ministers repeatedly rejecting the idea, the day after the letter was published, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman announced a new £120 million 'Covid Summer Food Fund' to provide food vouchers for the summer holidays.

Whilst this was a temporary aid to thousands of families across the UK, Rashford acknowledged that there was more to be done to tackle the root issue of child food poverty. He set up a taskforce with brands such as Aldi, Tesco, Deliveroo and Kellogg’s to create a plan to implement three key policy recommendations from the National Food Strategy. This report commissioned by the government highlighted the huge economic and health inequalities which had been aggravated by the coronavirus crisis, but ministers had not acted on its recommendations prior to Rashford’s campaigning. Alongside the taskforce, he created a petition calling on the government to support vulnerable children by implementing the three recommendations.

Coming up to the half-term break in October 2020, Downing Street was once again resisting the continuation of the voucher scheme over not just the week-long October break, but also the Christmas holidays. Boris Johnson’s spokesperson reiterated that the PM believed that extra help for poorer pupils due to the fact that schools had reopened and that the scheme was only ever intended for support during term time. Marcus Rashford once again took to Twitter to share his disappointment in the decision and to urge Boris Johnson to sit down with him and come up with a solution.

On 22nd October, the Government voted against the provision of free school meal vouchers for children over the Christmas holidays. Many Conservative MPs voted against the provision as they did not believe it to be a sustainable solution to food poverty. For example, Brendan Clarke-Smith, MP for Bassetlaw, said: “We need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility, and that means less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty.”

Others inadvertently reinforced the perception of the Conservative party being out of touch with the UK public. One example of this was, Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield, suggesting in a since-deleted tweet that some meal vouchers were being traded in crack dens and brothels. The backlash he received for reinforcing the dangerous view of people claiming benefits as drug addicts sponging off the system resulted in Bradley later apologising, saying his comments were taken out of context.

On the back of the vote, many people – celebrities and members of the public alike – supported Marcus Rashford as he continued his campaign and helped out food poverty charities, such as FareShare. Councils pledged to feed schoolchildren over the holidays and local cafes stepped in to offer food and support. The pressure was mounting on Downing Street as Rashford’s petition surpassed 1 million signatures and more and more businesses, charities and councils were joining the cause.

On 8th November, Downing Street took its third U-turn and announced a package called the ‘Covid Winter Grant Scheme which included the provision of free school meals during holidays up until Easter 2021, as well as funding to local councils to support vulnerable families with the cost of food, energy, water bills and other associated costs.

A short-lived victory?

When England went into its third and current lockdown in January and schools were closed again, the Department of Education put catering company Chartwells in charge of distributing food parcels to children who were eligible for free school meals.

Photos started circulating on social media of food parcels that fall short of the nutritional needs of children, never mind the basic human need for a satisfied stomach. An anonymous Twitter user called Roadside Mum shared a photo of a parcel that should have been worth £30 and last 10 days. It consisted of two carrots, two potatoes, a loaf of bread, a tin of beans, 2 bananas, a few slices of cheeses, 3 Frubes, 2 mini Soreen bars, 1 tomato and a meagre amount of pasta. She calculated it as costing £5.77 in total. This was just one of many photos being shared.

As a result of the public uproar, Labour MPs and Marcus Rashford called on Boris Johnson to act. He acknowledged that the parcels were “an insult” and issued an apology, along with Chartwells. In yet another U-turn (kudos if you’re still counting), the Department of Education dropped its ‘food parcel first’ policy and told families that they can go back to using vouchers if they prefer. This appears to be working for now but what happens once the Winter Grant Scheme ends in Easter of this year is still very much unknown.

The free school meals scheme undoubtably has its criticisms, the main one being that it is not a solution to the underlying issues of income poverty and food poverty in the UK. However, it has undeniably provided a lifeline to thousands of families in need across the UK during the century that the scheme has existed in some form.

Whether you think the UK government was justified in its decisions, it must be admitted that the handling of the situation has fed into the anxiety of families across the UK who have already suffered a lot of hardship in the last twelve months. Whilst progress has been made in terms of getting support to these families, we must remember that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to solve the underlying structural issues causing families to go hungry in the 21st-century UK.

If you are interested in offering support to people in need, you can donate to your local food bank (if you are based in the UK, you can find it here along with a list of what they need), volunteer with a food poverty charity such as FareShare or lobby your MP and ask them to visit a food bank as first-hand experience can be a powerful way for the issue to gain traction in Parliament.

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