Free school dinners, and why we need more of them

This week my younger one started school, coinciding with the launch of the new policy of free school dinners for reception and key stage one – the only positive change in the education system so far this government. While there have been complaints that under the rise of food banks and gaping social inequalities we should be means testing and giving to the needy, I think that as Phil BC has pointed out the left should be retaining our traditional support for universal benefits, school dinners included.

There are problems, of course. Under cuts, it appears that in many areas, the dinners have been promised without funding being delivered from the DofE to cover the costs of setting them up. I would be interested to see how the change to universal free meals impacts on funding for schools in terms of allocations for numbers from low-income socio-economic backgrounds, too – up to this point at our kids’ school parents are encouraged to notify that they are entitled to free dinners whether they are going to claim them or not as this impacts on allocation of extra funding – presumably this funding is still there, but whether it will reduce in budget changes I don’t know, so that needs looking into.

So why are universal free school meals a good idea? Well, there are a number of points to consider.

Most importantly, universal benefits increase social cohesion in two ways:

  • Firstly, because everyone is getting them, parents no longer have to feel they are receiving a handout, and I suspect the numbers of children getting them who are entitled will increase. Parents don’t have to feel like they are failing to provide or lose pride, children aren’t going to be identified by others and stigmatised, and the paperwork doesn’t have to happen any more.
  • Secondly, universal benefits are good for social cohesion. They avoid people slipping through the net due to complexities in claiming, break down the barrier between “striver and scrounger” rhetoric in terms of the principal of social redistribution itself, and make middle and upper classes more invested in defending a welfare state. Making child benefits means tested, for example, has come alongside a real terms loss of £1,080 for families with two children. Wherever benefits become means-tested, they reinforce the principle of welfare as a form of charity rather than justice, to be removed where “unaffordable”. This study of 11 OECD countries has shown that where benefits are mean-tested, they drop in value for the people who need them.

There are other arguments to be made about school meals too. So long as they are properly planned, they provide warm nourishment for children who may be having it as their only full meal of the day, and arguably can be used to promote better nutrition generally in a time of rising obesity. From a class point of view, junk food is increasingly entangled with predatory capitalism, but that doesn’t mean it is only children from lower class backgrounds who are sent into school with white bread, crisps, chocolate etc, so a universal school meal is an investment in good nutrition for children across society.

As far as my two are adapting so far, we’re off to a mixed start. Megan apparently ate a solitary roast potato on her first day because she was suspicious of the main meal she was given, and yesterday in spite of my attempts to get her to rehearse asking for a jacket potato apparently had a lunch box with a cheese sandwich in that they offer ready prepared. My son is far more enthusiastic – he misses the cut-off but in the spirit of fairness he’s getting hot dinners too, which is apparently one of the best things that has ever happened to him in his life (or as he put it “no more pots of cold broccoli for me”. ). It might be a good thing as last year he was put in charge of monitoring fruit and veg consumption for the other kids in his class as part of a reward scheme, and grassed up some false claimants – shocking!

It’s easy to understand why people are suspicious of universal free school dinners in terms of the kind of society we have at the moment, where food itself is a big issue for so many people. But I think we need to support them, and build a policy to extend across the whole school system, for two reasons. Firstly, it will mean every child in the school system who is potentially going without a hot meal will get at least one a day, and get one in a way that is not labeling them as a claimant or part of an underclass. But secondly, it will also mean every child gets a taste of a universalism – the idea that we can have a society where everyone is entitled to care, and an equal share.

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