Monday, 7 September 2009

Sharon Hodgson: "There is such a thing as a free lunch"

Guest post from Sharon Hodgson MP

The cynic's adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch is set to become a thing of the past in parts of East London, Wolverhampton and Durham, thanks to long awaited pilots into the potential benefits of introducing universal free school meals.
A great deal of work has already been done by school caterers to remove the high fat, low nutrient food which was so widespread before it met with the appalled gaze of Jamie Oliver and the media spotlight. These changes have presented their own challenges and with school meal take up falling, no control over packed lunches and an estimated 80% of pupils using takeaways and fast food to supplement their diet; further steps are clearly needed.
I first became convinced of the merits of providing universal free school meals after a fact finding visit to Sweden. I watched in awe as children as young as five served themselves a hot, healthy dinner, sat down with their fellow pupils and their teachers and ate every last morsel before proceeding to clear up after themselves.
The potential benefits of universal free school meals for Britain would bring more than just better table manners and what is more, they all fit with a progressive agenda. With the £2 plus school dinner here to stay the strain on stretched budgets is increasing. With universal free school meals the gains would be felt most by those with less. Schools and councils can save on the cost of means-testing children and ensuring the eligible take up their entitlements. The NHS would benefit from savings made in combating obesity; the environmental benefits of local sourcing of food would be significant and finally, improved educational attainment would be a boost for our future.
There is a growing campaign coalition of MPs, health charities, environmental organisations and education unions who will be watching with interest the outcomes of the pilots. We know from previous experience in Hull that universal free school meals can bring about a noticeable difference in a short space of time but unfortunately the incoming Liberal Democrat Council scrapped the pilots there before they could be completed. The Tories won't commit to seeing out the current wave of pilots so it is left to Labour as usual to bang the drum for progressive change. I'm confident the pilots can tell a successful story and give a future Government plenty of food for thought.

Sharon Hodgson is the MP for Gateshead East and Washington West and a long-time campaigner for free school meals and has previously written for the Fabian Review on this subject.


Michael said...

Firstly, it's disingenuous to claim that the schools meals would be free, as any nationwide scheme such as this would inevitably rely on the purse of the taxpayer.

My biggest objection, however, is that you acknowledge the flaws of the scheme and then completely ignore them, save for the rather sinister sounding 'further steps are clearly needed'. I'm not sure what this means (forced school meals? banned or regulated packed-lunches? schoolchildren not allowed to leave the premises at lunchtimes? closure/regulation of the school tuck shop?) - I think you ought to elaborate before claiming the 'progressive' mantra.

Chirimolla said...

Free School Meals are a fantastic idea. Though they will of course be paid for by the taxpayer, the real cost will be greatly reduced by reduction in obesity levels that this brings about. It is estimated that obesity related disease will cost the NHS £6.2bn per year by 2015:

The previous commenter makes the point that kids bypass school meals, opting for unhealthy takeaways and packed lunches instead. Free school meals provides a financial incentive for them not to do that. Parents will certainly want their kids to go for the free and easy option rather than spend give their kids money to spend on packed takeaways.

What's more, this will get kids into good habits. Kids are less likely to go for takeaways when they're teenagers if they've been in the habit of eating school meals since they started school. And people who get into the habit of eating healthy meals rather than takeaways as kids will likely continue that habit into adulthood.

Robert said...

I think the kids have shown they are not happy with the new menus, in my area the schools are offering the old meals to try and coax the kids back as over 50% went for packed lunches. The school then said school meals would be compulsory and the kids refused to eat anything.

The problem is you can take a horse to water but boy you cannot make him drink.

If you want to help kids get back the sport and the sport days teach kids how to live. we do not have sports days anymore, we do not even have parks anymore or play grounds with swings roundabouts, in case they get hurt. lets get back to allowing kids to play to run and to fall over and get cut, let them have footballs in the play grounds , and feed them food not salads.