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Schools: Free School Meals

Volume 797: debated on Wednesday 22 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to maintain appropriate standards in the delivery of free school meals.

My Lords, this Government want pupils to be healthy and well nourished. It is important that all pupils have access to healthy and nutritious meals at school, including those eligible for free school meals. We encourage a balanced diet and healthy life choices through school funding legislation and guidance. Our school food standards mean that the food children eat at school is healthy and foods high in fat, salt and sugar are restricted.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I wish it were entirely true. Through the Children’s Future Food Inquiry, I have spoken directly to children who live in poverty and for whom these meals are a lifeline. The £2.30 a day allowance is simply not enough, unless the school is very creative, to provide daily meals and snacks. I have heard from children who were charged up to £2 for half a small pizza. In some schools, where the water fountains are broken, they were paying 90p for a bottle of water. We spend £458 million a year on school meals, but no monitoring system is in place in England and standards are very uneven. When free school meals were extended under the coalition, a post was created to monitor them, but that person was let go after a year. Do the Government not agree that this is an extremely short-sighted approach and that the post should be reinstated immediately?

My Lords, I will certainly take the noble Baroness’s suggestion back to the department for consideration. It is, however, a statutory requirement that all state schools provide free drinking water to their pupils. If there is any evidence of schools not delivering that, I would be interested to hear it.

My Lords, a recent academic study of children and food in low-income families published by the Child Poverty Action Group, of which I am president, found that most of the children attended schools with exclusionary school meal practices, which rationed the food that children receiving free school meals were allowed, leaving them hungry and stigmatised. As one child reported, “If you’re not free school meals, you get to have bigger food”, and he did not think that was fair. Does the Minister think it is fair? If not, what can the Government do to encourage more schools to adopt inclusionary practices, which make no discriminatory distinctions between poorer and better-off children?

My Lords, a great deal of work has gone on over the past few years to remove any chance of stigma, principally through the cashless facilities that schools now operate in their canteens so that a child in receipt of free school meals is indistinguishable from another child when they are being served with food. I would be very surprised to hear of the discrimination that the noble Baroness referred to.

The Minister rightly talks about healthy eating, nutritious meals and the problem of childhood obesity, but the reality in schools is rather different. First, at key stage 2 the majority of children bring packed lunches, which are often not at all healthy. Secondly, the amount of time that children have for their lunch is being cut back so they literally rush in, eat it and rush out again. Thirdly, a cafeteria approach means that, sadly, young people choose food that is not at all healthy. I can remember when you would have what were called family meals; children would sit down at a table and serve each other, there would be conversation and they would have time to eat. Is it not time to look at what is happening in our schools at lunchtime and establish some guidelines about good practice?

My Lords, compliance with school food standards is mandatory for all maintained schools and has been part of funding agreements for academies and free schools since 2014. We have provided this legislative framework, and we are providing free school meals for a huge number of pupils. As the noble Lord will know, we introduced free school meals for infants, which are now feeding some 1.5 million pupils a year.

My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity to congratulate the charity Family Action, which is running the national school breakfast programme? It is now operating in 1,700 schools, providing a nutritious breakfast for more than 280,000 children who come to school without having had any breakfast.

The noble Lord is quite correct. Family Action was deployed in March last year on a two-year contract. It has since provided support to improve breakfast clubs in some 1,770 schools with a focus on increasing provision for disadvantaged pupils in opportunity areas.

My Lords, the Minister failed to answer the question that my noble friend Lady Lister asked. She gave evidence of discriminatory practices and the Minister said they could not possibly exist. Will he please look into the allegations that my noble friend made and answer the question? If this is going on, does he believe it is fair? It is a simple question and it deserves a simple answer.

My Lords, if the noble Baroness would like to write to me with examples of this, I will certainly look into it.

My Lords, I passionately believe that good nutrition is a human right. What are our schools doing to ensure that parents are educated in good nutritional value? Without good nutritional value, those children are prone to heart disease, obesity and related diseases later in life.

It is certainly incumbent on parents to set an example of good nutrition and diet in the home. I know of a number of schools that operate cookery classes and cookery clubs for parents. Indeed, my academy trust used to do such a thing. It is something that we need to keep as a priority.

My Lords, a new clinical service at the Evelina London Children’s Hospital has found that 70% of children with ongoing health conditions are from families living with food insecurity. It is even seeing the return of rickets, a disease of malnutrition and poverty. For these children, high-quality free school meals may be the best reliable source of nutrition. Given that we know that children who go hungry are more likely to experience health issues in later life, does the Minister agree that ensuring high-quality free school meals is about not just preventing hunger but preventing food insecurity leaving an indelible mark on these young people’s lives?

I agree with the noble Baroness that nutritious food is essential for children. That is why that is set out clearly in the food standards. We are working to understand more about food insecurity by spring 2021.

My Lords, as the school holidays approach, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that disadvantaged children continue to enjoy nutritious food through the school holidays?

My Lords, we are running a number of pilot schemes on food in school holidays, and we have quadrupled the amount of money this year to strengthen programmes to encourage co-ordination in local communities. Just two weeks ago, we announced a number of organisations that will be working across the country to do this. We hope to feed around 50,000 children during the holidays this summer.

Can the Minister square his comment that all children are entitled to nutritious school meals with the fact that the Conservative Party’s 2017 manifesto committed to ending universal free school lunches for infants?

My Lords, the reality is that we have not done that and are providing some 1.5 million infant meals at a cost of some £600 million a year.