By: Shubham Ghosh
London mayor Sadiq Khan on Sunday (19) announced an emergency scheme worth £130 million to help families tackle the spiraling cost-of-living crisis by ensuring that every primary school-going child in London receives free meals at their place of education in the next academic year.
With the move, Khan steps in with the one-off proposal to see that healthy free school meals are made available to all primary school pupils for a year from September due to the tough challenges that households across the capital are currently facing.
The move is expected to help around 270,000 primary schoolchildren and enable families to save around £440 per child throughout the year.
Khan, who himself ate free school meals as a child, has called on the government time and again to make the food available to all as research has shown that hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, who live in poverty, do not receive them due to the government’s restrictive eligibility criteria and lack of universal provision.
Currently, a household on universal credit must earn less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including benefits), regardless of the number of children in the family, to be eligible.
This means that many children from working families in poverty aren’t entitled to free school meals.
Given the government’s inaction, and the soaring cost of living hitting London’s families particularly hard, the mayor has now proposed a plan to make the meals available – on a universal basis – to all of the capital’s primary schoolchildren for one full school year.
As well as saving families hundreds of pounds per child, making free school meals available to all helps reduce the stigma that can be associated with being singled out as low income, therefore boosting take-up among families who need them most.
The meals are also good for children’s health as they might be the child’s main source of hot, nutritious food. The children are also helped in their study if it is ensured that they don’t go hungry.
Khan made the announcement about the emergency funding as he visited his old school — Fircroft Primary — in Tooting. Khan was clear that he is only able to provide help that should be coming from the government for one year.
The move is the latest in a long line of commitments from the mayor to help Londoners navigate the cost of living crisis.
Besides investing £3.46 billion into building the genuinely affordable homes Londoners need, the mayor is currently spending more than £80 million to help those struggling with the rising cost of living, including more than £50 million to tackle fuel poverty through the his Warmer Homes programme and energy advice services; more than £20 million to improve security for private renters and house Londoners who are rough sleeping or homeless; more than £5m to connect Londoners with welfare advice; and £400,000 to tackle food insecurity.
He is also spending £400 million on skills and employment programmes to support Londoners to find more secure work.
Khan is determined to make London the best place to grow up and has committed to supporting young Londoners and has invested £70 million over three years through the Young Londoners Fund which created positive opportunities for over 140,000 disadvantaged young Londoners and has so far invested over £7 million in providing quality mentoring opportunities to 30,000 disadvantaged young people through the New Deal for Young People, on course to reach 100,000 by end of 2024.
He has also protected free travel for under-18s when the government withdrew funding, and partnered with The London Marathon Charitable Trust and Sport England, and strategic partners London Sport and London Marathon Events to launch a £17 million fund to support underserved young Londoners through the power of sport and physical activity, and helped introduce more than 500 School Streets to help reduce toxic air pollution, carbon emissions and road danger for young children.
“The cost of living crisis means families and children across our city are in desperate need of additional support. I have repeatedly urged the government to provide free school meals to help already stretched families, but they have simply failed to act,” Khan said.
He said it was the reason why stepped in with the emergency scheme to ensure that every single primary pupil in the capital gets free school meals. According to him, it would not only help families save hundreds of pounds every year and reduce the parents’ worry about feeding their children but also guarantee that every student gets a healthy meal and concentrate on their studies better.
Recalling his own childhood when he had free school meals, Khan added, “I know from personal experience that free school meals are a lifeline. My siblings and I depended on them to eat while at school and my parents relied on them to give our family a little extra breathing room financially. The difference they can make to children who are at risk of going hungry – and to families who are struggling to make ends meet – is truly game-changing.
“Supporting London’s families through this cost-of-living crisis and helping ensure our children are properly fed is vital as we continue striving to build a better London for everyone – a city that is fairer, safer and more prosperous for all.”
The Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, said, “London’s children face some of the highest levels of deprivation anywhere in the country. We cannot consider ourselves a modern and progressive society if the most vulnerable among us are forced to go without basic food and nourishment. School should be a place where children can learn and grow; not worry about where their next hot meal is going to come from. As Londoners continue to struggle with the cost of living crisis, the prospect of saving hundreds of pounds will be welcome news to the capital’s families.”
Chef Tom Kerridge said, “All children deserve access to healthy, nutritious food and, at a particularly difficult time for many households and families, I’m pleased to lend my support to the mayor’s initiative to ensure every primary school child in London has access to free school meals.”
Victoria Benson, CE of Gingerbread, a single parent charity, said, “The cost of living crisis has been brutal for single parents and has meant that children have gone without basic essentials because household budgets have been stretched beyond breaking point. We have heard from so many single parents that they have simply been unable to afford the huge price increases which we have seen over the past year with the result that many of them, or their children, have had to go without food. It will be a huge relief to many parents that their child will now be fed at school and we welcome the Mayor’s free school meals initiative and hope it will mean fewer children in London will experience hunger.”
Anna Taylor, executive director, The Food Foundation, said, “We applaud London’s Mayor for taking timely action to support families fighting the cost of living by ensuring every primary school pupil gets a nutritious lunch, no matter their background. This is a monumental step forward for safeguarding children’s diets, well-being and learning across the capital.
“However, outside of London, hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty still don’t qualify for a Free School Meal. The central government must now honour its levelling up commitment by investing in Free School Meal expansion for every community in the upcoming budget. We know this policy has resounding support in every corner of the UK.”
Barbara Crowther of the Children’s Food Campaign said, “This is utterly delicious news! We applaud the Mayor for announcing this vital nutritional safety net for every single primary school child in London for the coming academic year. We know a healthy meal is fuel for both brain and body, so that our children can concentrate, play and learn.
“However, healthy school food for all must not just be an emergency measure, it should be a core part of a fully inclusive education system for the long term. It would be a sound investment, as research shows that every £1 invested in healthy school meals could deliver £1.71 in increased educational outcomes, better health and longer-term economic benefits. So our national government also needs to step up and make school food for all a permanent part of our education system and the future prosperity of the nation.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary, National Education Union, said, “This announcement is a much-needed lifeline for families experiencing hardship following a decade of economic mismanagement from the government. Poverty has a profound impact on students’ attainment and educational outcomes, and the cost-of-living crisis is leading to a devastating fall in living standards for millions, forcing more families into poverty and hardship.
“Free school meals must be a central part of any attempt to raise attainment, particularly for the least well-off, and make society fairer for everyone. The best way to achieve this is by offering free school meals to every child in primary school. Children who have access to a healthy, hot meal, every day, are better able to focus, connect with their peers and build bright futures. Making this access universal removes the stigma and ensures all children get the support they need to thrive.
“The mayor’s announcement will help families to navigate the cost-of-living crisis, will ensure that all children are fed during the school day, and will allow schools to best support their communities. The government must now end its inaction and commit to funding free school meals for all in primary across the rest of the country, and long term.”
Charlotte Hill OBE, CEO of The Felix Project, said, “We know the need among parents is incredibly high, The Felix Project provides over 170 primary schools with surplus food and we currently have more than 130 on our waiting list. The school food banks are a huge help to parents, particularly for those who do not qualify for free school meals but are still really struggling with the high costs of feeding their children throughout the day. We welcome this scheme and the positive impact it will have on both parents’ finances and the children themselves.”
Matthew Bolton, executive director of Citizens UK said, “This will be welcomed as fantastic news by tens of thousands of Londoners suffering in this cost of living crisis and the 100 schools involved in London Citizens. We know from our campaign to ensure free school meals to students whose parents are subject to No Recourse to Public Funds, that vulnerable people fall through the net of the current system and children go hungry. This change will ensure all children in London get that hot meal they need and that there is no additional stigma attached to the injustice of low income.”
Luke Bridges, head teacher, All Saints Primary School, London Citizens said, “This is great news for London schools. A nutritious school meal ensures children are healthy and ready for learning. Children and families will be delighted to hear that school meals will be funded for all primary pupils. It will help combat both a health problem and the cost of living crisis.”
Stephanie Slater, founder/chief executive of School Food Matters, said, “This wonderful news will bring relief to millions of families and schools across London. Too many children have been missing out on the nutrition they need to thrive, due to restrictive eligibility criteria and an onerous application process. Thanks to the vision of London’s mayor, from September every primary school child in the capital will have a hot, healthy school meal.
“Universal provision has been shown to improve children’s health and attainment, as well as reducing inequalities, putting money back into families’ pockets and boosting the economy. We hope the government will follow London’s lead and expand free school meals to more children nationwide, but for now three cheers for the Mayor!”
Dame Emma Thompson said, “This initiative could not be more welcome or more timely. The fact that it is needed at all is testament to the damaging policies of the last 20 years. It is therefore essential that during this year we fight for the right of our children to a proper meal at school, un-stigmatised by the free school meals label which causes so much distress.”