Universal Free School Meals as a Policy Tool

by George Hatjoullis

In a year of general election in the UK I expect to hear the usual grumbling from electors about how, it does not matter which Party you vote for, the government always get in. Policies blur and no one seems very happy with any government for very long. In the meantime the electorate is bombarded, through the media, with a relentless barrage of social woes. Child poverty, inequality, obesity, child obesity, food banks etc. People of my generation know these problems are not new but merely rediscovered, having been unrecorded or not understood in previous generations. A good policy tool is one that can hit many targets simultaneously. May I suggest that universal free school meals, UFSM, is such a tool.

Let us postulate that nutrition is correlated with academic attainment. It is intuitively appealing. It is likely that obesity is a function of childhood eating habits and education. The poor practices of the parents are perpetuated by the children unless something breaks the vicious circle. Children arrive at school variously fed and continue through the day to eat in a variety of ways. In part it is ignorance and in part economic circumstance; inequality. Let us now introduce UFSM.

All children begin the day with a nutritious and appetising breakfast. It sets them up for the day. They can see what constitutes a nutritious breakfast. Children of limited economic circumstance receive a meal they may not otherwise have had. There is no social stigma as all receive this meal. The process is repeated at lunchtime and perhaps even a study period after school could include a nutritious and appetising snack. Unapproved snacks in school are banned and leaving school premises during breaks is restricted to 6th formers (that should have developed good habits by this stage). Child poverty is partly addressed. Obesity is addressed. Inequality is addressed. There is no disincentive for parents to work or waste money given to them to support their families. A major differentiating factor among school children is removed without any social stigma.

Now let us extend this to the curriculum; nutrition as an examined subject. It dovetails neatly with the sciences and provides a ‘real’ element to otherwise abstract subjects. It can be extended to what are now known as ‘home economics’ classes (for all genders) but were known as ‘cookery’ when I was a lad (we did woodwork in those sexist days). Judging by the number of celebrity chefs and cookery programmes, this innovation may go down very well. Cooking is also a very effective conduit for diversity awareness through different food traditions. The cookery classes could even be linked in to the provision of UFSM. The provision of free school meals clearly has potential if properly organised.

Now what about funding? It would be expensive. Initially, but over time who is to say it would not pay for itself? One of the statistics constantly thrown out is the cost of obesity. If the media are to be believed most diseases are caused by obesity so the long term gains in health care costs would be huge. Certainly worth a cost benefit analysis. In the meantime it could have material implications for average academic attainment and in reducing inequality and child poverty.

If you want something new to put to the self-serving, power crazed, egotists that will seek to represent you in the coming election, try this idea. I am happy to develop the argument further and dig up and critique research if need be.

Happy New Year

Postscript 11/01/2015

The Evaluation of Free School Meals pilot (http://bit.ly/JV9Csq) provides some tentative evidence on the potential benefits of free school meals. However, the limited nature of the pilot means it is impossible to draw any definitive conclusions. There is an executive summary for those not willing to tackle the whole report. The pilot study falls somewhat short of the intergenerational project described above (it took place over two years and free school meals were optional). There may be lessons from the report about implementation of such a project but it does not, in my opinion, either support or dismiss the validity of the UFSM idea. There is a desire in policy circles to ensure that all policy initiatives are ‘evidence based’. This is in principle laudable but in practice can often be a device to avoid expensive initiatives. The success or otherwise of a UFSM will only be fully understood on an intergenerational basis. It will depend on the form of implementation ( compulsion, palatability, variety, sensitivity to diversity) and as well as positive reinforcement changes to the whole experience of being at school as well as the curriculum. This pilot is interesting but falls somewhat short. UFSM requires an act of commitment on a par with the introduction of the NHS, state pensions and the wider welfare state.