Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Tyne and Wear, says free, hot meals for all school children would help cut obesity and reverse health inequalities.
The biggest challenge in public health is to ensure that we are educating children across the country about their health and how it affects their lives.
My constituency suffers from health inequalities which must be reversed. Obesity, smoking rates, cancer rates and deaths from heart disease are all higher than the average.
So I see it as part of my responsibility as an elected representative to promote policies which could benefit children’s health and educational attainment in my constituency and nationally. To do this I believe that we must go further still on delivering good quality school food.
We have all heard the tales of mums passing pizzas through the school gates, chip shops making record lunchtime profits and some children causing a mess and being a nuisance out on the streets. We cannot allow this to continue.
My solution is straightforward and simple: free, universal, locally sourced, hot school lunches coupled with a lunchtime lock-down for pupils under the age of 16.
For this to work properly packed lunches should be discouraged. A large number of parents currently send their children to school with a packed lunch but unfortunately most lunchboxes are far from healthy. Children have even been known to turn up to school with cold left-over McDonald’s for lunch.
What parent would go to the hassle and cost of providing a packed lunch – healthy or otherwise, if they can have a free healthy hot dinner for their child? According to Unison the average cost of paying for a school dinner is £7.40 per week per child, no wonder parents with bigger families opt to send their kids to school with a packed lunch.
250,000 children who are entitled to free school meals don’t get them because they don’t claim them. In my constituency, hundreds of children lose out everyday despite the best efforts of my local councils to increase take-up.
A universal free school meals policy works in Sweden, Finland and the Honduras and we are now seeing pilots in Scotland and North Tyneside.
These pilots are possible because of the changes made in the 2006 Education and Inspections Bill. This legislation removed any statutory obligation on schools to charge for meals. We should use this legislation otherwise it becomes pointless.
Of course, there would be a cost attached to universal free school meals. The House of Commons Library which is a highly respected and credible source, puts the cost at between £900 million and £1.1 billion.
This is not peanuts. But it is still only about 0.2 per cent of government spending. If we are to tackle the ticking time bomb we face in public health we need to start considering more radical policies.