We stand up for families facing disadvantage through our frontline work every day. But we also represent them on a national level, such as this piece in the Guardian.
Free school meals are universally available to all school pupils in Year 2 and below. But there are rumours this policy and grant for schools will be scrapped by the government. So the Guardian asked us: should universal free meals for children in key stage 1 continue?
Our answer? A resounding YES.
Through our frontline work in schools and communities across the country, we know that the repercussions of children losing a free, nutritional meal are severe. While people against the policy may argue that a new approach targeting families who already qualify for free school meals (FSM) would be better – the reality is not so simple.
We’ve seen a significant rise in the number of families we support working while living in long-term poverty. They would not be eligible for FSM but cannot afford a packed lunch when food poverty is already a major issue. Parents are in work and still not able to afford to feed their children a healthy nutrition meal. Having to make decisions like food or rent – putting their tenancy at risk just to feed their family – heating the home is often seen as a luxury.
The impact on parents, carers and families
We already see how not having this meal during school holidays impacts families – including parental mental health and added stress to their already fragile state when they can’t support and feed their children – this is a time parents dread, for many children too the school holidays are a time of lack of food, warmth, and other basic needs.
Often, parents go without food themselves during this period. If UIFSM was to end, the holiday hunger issue that’s rising every year would expand to school time too. If this happens, what impact will this have on a growing mental health crisis that the state already cannot cope with?
Parents face a range of financial poverty issues – UIFSM enables them to focus on and improve some of those other areas knowing their child is getting a good solid meal each day – that reassurance and financial support can make the world of difference to a family living in poverty and support their mental wellbeing.
Families are increasingly turning to foodbanks (one in 50 UK households), but it’s a grave misconception that these can provide limitless support. Foodbanks should be helping those at a time of crisis – they are not a consistent solution. Demand outstrips capacity and individuals have only a limited amount of vouchers.
From time to time, we provide emergency food packages to families via our Welfare Fund, and demand would no doubt rise if UIFSM was discontinued – but this too is not bottomless, nor is it a long-term solution for the thousands and thousands of families that would face hunger if universal infant free school meals was scrapped.
The impact on children and young people
The stress that comes with food poverty affects children’s mental health as well as parents mental health – this affects their behaviour, attendance and attainment at school and makes them worry about what they’re going to eat. And it’s not just worrying about where the next meal is coming from. The long-term impact of poor diet is obesity, heart disease and some forms of cancer. How do we expect children to thrive and have a positive future when they are already at such a disadvantage?
We support a child in Bradford who refuses to have his sandwiches cut for fear of wasting the crumbs. It is staggering that children are so hungry and so aware of losing food – but this is the reality of food poverty and how it affects children today. We have many other cases like this, children living with worries that a child should never have.
Continuing to fight
We are grateful to the Guardian for publishing our comments and giving a platform to these important discussions. We continue to support children, young people, families and schools and hope the government makes the right decision to continue with this vital policy.
If you’d like to help more children access the education they deserve by supporting our work, please consider donating to us today – thank you.