Free school meals scheme backed by Jamie Oliver 'making children fatter'

Analysis of thousands of school chidren who benefitted from free school meals suggests a rise in obesity and no improvement in grades

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The Independent Online

A £600m free school meals programme backed by Jamie Oliver is just making pupils even fatter, new figures have suggested.

The programme was rolled out by the coalition government in 2014, and provides hot lunches to all pupils during their first three years of primary school, as part of a bid to improve students’ health and reduce childhood obesity.

Supporters of the scheme claimed that improved nutrition in schools would also boost pupils’ grades, but an analysis of tens of thousands of children has shown that the initiative has had little impact on either.

New data obtained by the Mail on Sunday revealed the policy may have even resulted in more children leaving school overweight, with almost a third of pupils in some areas leaving school clinically obese.

At the time of the scheme’s launch, politicians including the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had pointed to previous studies that showed students who had hot meals for lunch were as much as two months ahead in school compared to those who chose snacks such as sandwiches and fizzy drinks. 

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was a firm advocate of the programme, and warned that the obesity crisis would only escalate if free school meals were to be scrapped.

Critics of the scheme called it “expensive gesture politics”, however, 

NHS data for the London boroughs of Newham and Islington suggest those claims could have been overstated.

While 24.7 per cent of pupils who left Newham primary schools in 2011 were classed as obese, this figure had increased to 27.4 per cent of leavers last year, despite the children in question having benefitted from five years of free meals.

In Islington, the figure rose to 22.8 per cent from 21.8 per cent in the same time period.

The two pioneer boroughs also saw little difference in terms of students’ grades compared to the London average.

Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said:

“The Government's free meals scheme is expensive gesture politics. In these straitened times, the money would be much better spent on education itself.

“There is no evidence of any impact on obesity, nor would much be expected given everything involved in a child’s weight.

“Children spend a relatively small part of their lives at school, so any obesity will be down to their whole way of life with their families, not just those few hours in school.”

The new data coincides with news from national poverty support charity Turn2Us that two-fifths of parents are concerned about increases to food bills, as school children break up for the summer holiday. 

The charity found 42 per cent of people surveyed said there were concerned about spending more money on food for their children during this time, with one in six people having to borrow money through credit cards, overdrafts or loans over the summer. 

More than 1.9m children are eligible for free school meals under the current policy. 

The scheme saves parents around £400 per year per child, and thousands of families in the UK are said to rely on the free school meals programme to provide their children’s main meal each day.

A spokesman for the Department for Education added: “About 1.3 million more children are enjoying a free, nutritious meal, saving families hundreds of pounds, and, along with our new School Food Standards, establishing healthy eating habits for life.”

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