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.