Free School Meals – The Elephant in the Room

In the summer, Marcus Rashford launched a successful campaign to get free school meal provision extended into the summer holidays. At the time, I wrote that whilst he should be congratulated, this was not in fact a long term solution to childhood food poverty.

My argument at the time was that we should be asking the question: “Why are families not able to feed their children through the holiday period.” I noted that this form of food poverty hadn’t suddenly started during Coronavirus. I suggested that we should look at a more coherent approach to benefits and to consider things like Universal Basic Income. This is because, if the benefits system is working properly then it should enable families to have the necessary income to provide the basic necessities in life, specifically food and shelter.

Going further, it is probably worth remembering that the introduction of school meals was not just about helping people financially. We need to look at the school meals concept from as a whole, not just the free dinners scheme. It was as much about public health and ensuring that children ate a hot and nourishing meal for at least 5 days of the week.  It was also in effect heavily subsidised even for those who paid for it. Alongside the hot meal at lunchtime was the breaktime bottle of milk to ensure that we had strong healthy bones and would make good workers later in life, even if some of did have to suffer runny noses due to our daily dose of lactose. 

Now, that system has been undermined somewhat throughout my lifetime. Margaret Thatcher cut back on the milk provision and children began bringing in their own packed lunches, meanwhile schools went for cheap and not necessarily healthy options both to save money and to offer something they considered attractive to children’s eyes and tastebuds. However it is important to remember those things because whether or not we like it, the system was brought in on the basis that the state knew better and cared better for families. I say that not to be pejorative as depending on your political view point, you may agree or disagree with the underlying philosophy.

This is important because when Tory MPs and right wing tweeters offend everyone by announcing that the problem is with feckless parents spending their money on booze, gags and the horses, well actually they are just joining in with the status quo. Now people on the left may be a little more subtle, a little les crass (unless we are talking Emily Thornbury sharing Instagram pics of council houses with England flags) but actually they are in agreement. The elephant in the room is that the problem is with the parents. It wasn’t about money because otherwise you would just increase the benefits which probably would have been far more efficient than giving space over to kitchens, it was about he public health programme. The consensus was not just that someone on free dinners was unlikely to be given a nourishing meal when they got home. They thought those of us who brought our pound in each day also wouldn’t get fed properly at home.

There is a further elephant in the room which is that whilst we may be offended at the stereotypes, most of us can think of plenty of examples where the problem is that money is going on feeding addictions and where giving time to cooking a healthy meal and then eating it together a sa  family is either low on the agenda or not practical.

Therefore, we have to step back and answer a few basic questions. Depending on your political beliefs you may come up with different answers:

  • Who is actually responsible for addressing these problems
  • What is the best way of addressing them.

It’s time for a mature conversation about poverty, welfare, public health and individual freedoms. The Church should have something to contribute to this conversation.

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