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Free School Meals: Government either doesn’t care or doesn’t get it

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This strategy sets out what we will do to create a more prosperous agri-food sector that delivers healthier, more sustainable and affordable diets for all.

Read more here.


Sector Response

The Social Market Foundation responds to the Government’s Food Strategy, out today.

On obesity and food poverty, Jake Shepherd, Researcher, said:

“The Government’s food strategy is yet another missed opportunity to alleviate the UK’s growing obesity challenge. While the extent of the problem is articulated clearly enough, including the role of wider health inequalities, deprivation, and the unaffordability of healthy foods in contributing to overweight and obesity rates, there is little to be said in terms of concrete policy solutions.

“The latest announcement hence joins a long chain of inadequate and unambitious obesity policies. To show it is serious about reducing obesity, the Government should consider a ‘whole systems’ approach whereby obesity and better health is considered in all aspects of policymaking.

On funding for alternative proteins, Linus Pardoe, Research Associate, said:
“The global race is on to develop the cutting-edge technologies that can revolutionise the quality, price and accessibility of meat substitutes. It is a positive step to see the government commit £120 million to public R&D for alternative proteins so that British universities and businesses can take their place at the forefront of that revolution.

“However, it is unclear if this represents ‘new’ money and the food strategy white paper provides another reminder that Whitehall lacks a coordinated, strategic approach to alternative proteins.

“At present, alternative protein policy is fragmented and underdeveloped, and whilst R&D spending is welcome, it represents only one of many ways Government can help to catalyse the transition to greener proteins. Ministers should urgently develop an alternative protein strategy or the UK runs the risks of losing out to other nations like China, Singapore and the Netherlands.”

On child hunger and food insecurity, Jake Shepherd, Researcher, said:

“There is also insufficient focus on food poverty and tackling food prices. The Government’s strategy talks a lot about global food insecurity, but hunger – and in particular child hunger – in the UK is overlooked. With millions of children already going hungry and the cost of living crunch continuing to bite, more support is desperately needed.

“One such solution would be to extend Free School Meals to children whose families who receive Universal Credit, households increasingly likely to struggle to keep up with rising living costs. An enhanced FSM scheme has been advocated by both the National Food Strategy and the SMF – it seems the Government has ignored those recommendations.”

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“The benefit of providing Free School Meals for low-income families is obvious and has very wide support across the country. Teachers are really worried about the impact of the cost of living on children and family incomes. The government is once again ignoring advice from its own expert advisers in rejecting the call to make sure all families on Universal Credit are eligible for FSM. This is an extraordinary decision, given rising costs and the government’s promises to ‘level up’. Families receiving Universal Credit absolutely must be able to receive free school meals and we think the extension in eligibility simply can’t wait. This policy will result in a great many young people going hungry, and this is a totally unacceptable position for a government to take. Heads are also concerned that school funding isn’t keeping up with the actual cost of free school meals, and this really matters if we want meals to be healthy and nutritious.”

Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“We are deeply disappointed that the government’s food strategy does not take up the recommendation of Henry Dimbleby’s review to expand the eligibility for free school meals to all children from households in receipt of Universal Credit.

“The proportion of children eligible for free school meals in England currently stands at 22.5 per cent – itself a shocking reflection of the extremely difficult circumstances facing many families. However, we know that child poverty is actually much higher at around 30 per cent. So, it is clear that a large number of children are missing out on the important provision of a free school meal.

“Besides the strong moral imperative to extend eligibility there is also an educational need as children are more likely to learn effectively if they have the basics of good nutritional food. The government must act on this issue and do the right thing for these young people.”

Responding to Victoria Prentis defending the Governments decision not to extend Free School Meals Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Munira Wilson MP said:

“This is yet another example of the Government ignoring their own advisors and short-changing children, as they continue to lose out. The Government either doesn’t care or doesn’t get it.

“It’s common sense to expand free school meals to all children on Universal Credit – we are suffering a cost of living crisis where parents are worried about putting food on the table.

“Our children’s health and education should be a top priority, but time and again under this government they are treated as a complete afterthought.”

The Food Foundation response to Government’s disappointing White Paper on National Food Strategy

Hopes were high that the Government’s Food Strategy would set out a long-term plan for incentivising the food system to shift towards the provision of nourishing, sustainable and affordable food, and away from food which makes us sick.  With the prices of food and fuel surging, this ambition is more urgent than ever, as more and more households who are struggling to pay the bills are put at even greater risk of diet-related disease.  Disappointingly, today’s White Paper mostly misses this mark.  The need for a political champion to lead this agenda has never been greater.

While we welcome several of the new commitments that have been made, such as to a new horticulture strategy for England, a land use framework, mandatory buying standards for food in all public sector settings, and mandatory business reporting, many of them will flounder without new legislation to make them stick. 

The lack of a Food Bill in the White Paper makes today’s strategy a pale imitation of the independent National Food Strategy which was published last year.  Echoes of many of Henry Dimbleby’s good ideas can be seen within today’s recommendations, but without robust regulatory mechanisms to ensure that they can be delivered and enforced the proposals do not have the clout that will be necessary to deliver real impact.  And without primary legislation to introduce long-term targets and accountability mechanisms for shifting the food system, we do not believe that today’s strategy is up to the challenge of delivering the consistency of progress that is needed over the long-term.

Anna Taylor, Executive Director of The Food Foundation said:  

“Today’s White Paper shows that no one in leadership in government appears to have really grasped the scale and urgency of the challenges posed to our health and our planet by the food system. What’s more, these challenges are growing exponentially with the cost of living crisis.   Despite its name, the whole document is lacking a strategy to transition the food system towards delivering good food which is accessible to everyone.  And without a commitment to a new Food Bill, many of the commendable commitments made are in reality toothless.  It is a feeble interpretation of Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations, which will not be sufficient to drive the long-term change that we know is so urgently needed.”

Sara Stanner, Science Director, British Nutrition Foundation, responds to the Government’s White Paper on the Food Strategy for England:

“We are pleased to see that the Government recognises that teachers and school leadership have a vital role to play to improve child health, having introduced some measures around food education within the Levelling Up White Paper. But we need to recognise that food education is more than ‘cooking’ and must encompass learning around healthy eating and where food comes from, to enable young people to make healthier and more sustainable choices now and into the future.

It is timely that the publication of the Food Strategy comes when new findings, published today as part of Healthy Eating Week, has revealed a concerning lack of knowledge among schoolchildren about the nutritional contents of many common foods. The survey results suggest that nearly a quarter (24 percent) of primary schoolchildren and 17 percent of secondary school children think that chicken counts towards your 5-A-DAY, while nearly a fifth (19 percent) of primary school children think that cheese can be one of your 5-A-DAY.

The Healthy Eating Week survey results also show that just 23 percent of older children know that carrots contain fibre, while only 60 percent of secondary school children and 36 percent of primary school children believe that wholemeal bread is a source of fibre. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of all schoolchildren think that chicken is a source of fibre, although it provides no fibre at all.

Lack of knowledge means people are less empowered to make informed choices, and achieving a healthy diet, with a good balance of the right types of foods, is more difficult if they don’t know which key nutrients different foods provide.

Through a series of free resources and activities, the British Nutrition Foundation’s Healthy Eating Week aims to help teachers and school leaders to educate children on the key principals of healthy diets and nutrition. But more support for schools is required and we need government-backed, bold initiatives to tackle the health and environmental challenges we are facing, to make healthier and more sustainable choices easier and more accessible for all, improve the health of the nation and reduce health inequalities.”

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