Andy McSmith: Importance of proper meals has been known for a century

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The Independent Online

It was the Boer War which provided the real impetus for making sure school children were properly fed. A Parliamentary Commission set up to find out how farmers were able to humiliate the British army noted that the soldiers were in poor health because they had been undernourished in childhood.

Within less than 20 years, more than a million children were being provided with free school meals. Later, free school milk was added. But, of course it, cost money. In 1971, the Conservative government, facing an economic crisis, decided to put an end to free school milk, saving £14m a year. Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, made the announcement, earning her the nickname "Thatcher the milk snatcher".

In 1977, a Labour government faced a worse economic crisis. Though the proportion of school children taking free meals had fallen below 62 per cent, it was costing £380m a year. However, after the Thatcher experience, the Labour government decided to leave the issue alone.

Three years later, the newly elected Thatcher government was prepared to go to almost any lengths to cut the deficit. The 1980 Education Act gave local authorities power to scrap school meals, except for children whose parents were on benefit.

It was unpopular, but at that time the government was doing so much that was unpopular that the school meals controversy hardly impacted on the political scene, or the next general election.