UK Forgets There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Starting next year, UK state schools will offer free hot lunches to all students in their first three years of formal education. The lunches will be available to students ages five to seven regardless of their parents’ incomes.

The announcement comes after the UK Department of Education published a report called The School Food Plan in July. It recommended providing free lunches to all students up to the age of eleven and banning homemade lunches.

The government’s new scheme does not go so far as to ban students from bringing their own food. However, that may happen in time. The School Food Plan sees homemade lunches as a huge problem, arguing that they are a major contributing factor to childhood obesity. Studies show that only 1 percent of homemade lunches meet government nutritional standards. The Plan also says that compulsory participation may be needed for free lunches to be economically viable. “A half-empty dining hall – like a half-empty restaurant – is certain to lose money. In order for the school food service to break even, average take-up needs to get above 50 percent [of students],” the Plan says. Currently, 57 percent of students bring a packed lunch.

The new government scheme is surprising in light of a study published last year which found that free school meals did not improve students’ health. The National Centre for Social Research, a respected independent body, was commissioned by the UK Department of Education to examine the results of a two-year pilot program where students in a limited number of schools were offered free lunches. Most students opted to take advantage of the offer. However, the report found “there was no evidence that the free school meal pilot led to significant health benefits during the two-year pilot period. For example, there was no evidence of any change in children’s body mass index.” Students ate healthier food during their school meals but continued to eat unhealthy food at other times. Also, some students were eating more than they were used to because they were served hot meals both at school and at home.

Despite the reports’ findings, the government has made it clear that this is the first step towards offering free meals to all primary school students, as the School Food Plan recommends. Announcing the new policy last week, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said, “We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits.”

The UK’s Union of Teachers urged the government to further expand the program. Christine Blower, the union’s general secretary said in a press release: “Children however do not stop being hungry at 7 years of age.” She hopes the new policy is “just the start of rolling out free schools meals to all children in primary schools.”

Henry Dimbleby, co-auhor of the School Food Plan, echoed these sentiments. “It’s a massive step, hopefully it will be the first step on the way to free school meals for everyone,” he said in an interview with BBC Radio 4.

When the School Food Plan was published, many commentators believed its recommendations were not feasible given the UK government’s current dire financial situation. Public debt exceeds 90 percent of national GDP. Most government departments have had their budgets cut.

The new plan for free lunches for students’ first three years is estimated to cost around $962 million. Details of how the new cost will fit into the government’s budget have yet to be released. Clegg believes the expense is worth it. “We believe that where we can find the money, even in these difficult times, we need to really invest that money in giving all children regardless of their family background the very best possible start in life.”

Clegg has framed the new scheme in terms of helping struggling families. Parents are believed to spend around $700 per year per child on school lunches.

The UK government has long provided free lunches to children whose parents are on welfare or have low incomes (currently defined as up to $26,000 per year). That policy will continue for students after their first three years.

However, the National Union of Teachers believes this does not go far enough. “With ever increasing rates of child poverty and childhood obesity, universal primary free school meals will not only bring about clear health and education benefits but will help support low income working parents and help to tackle child poverty,” said Blower.

If the National Center for Social Research’s findings last year are correct, most students will take up the offer of free meals. However, it is very unlikely that the benefits will exceed the costs.

Emma Elliot Freire is an American writer based in England. Free lunch image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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