‘I wouldn’t be where I am without them’: The lifeline provided by free school meals

Feed the Future: We are sharing stories from professionals highlighting how #FreeMadeMe – with free school meals having helped to underpin who they are today, writes David Cohen. We start with the story of solicitor Michele Price

Monday 24 October 2022 16:01 BST
Michele Price, a partner at Gunnercooke law firm
Michele Price, a partner at Gunnercooke law firm (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Solicitor Michele Price grew up in a low-income household and was the first in her family to go to university. The 59-year-old is now a partner in law firm Gunnercooke but says none of this would have been possible without the free school meals she received as a child.

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Marking the next stage in our Feed the Future campaign in partnership with the Food Foundation and a coalition of campaigning organisations calling on the government to extend free school meals to all children in poverty in England, we are launching #FreeMadeMe – a social media spinoff inspired by Michele in which doctors, lawyers, headteachers, filmmakers and politicians show how free school meals underpin where they are today. We start with Michele’s story.

“I remember feeling a sense of acute jeopardy in primary school as lunch approached,” she said. “As I got to the front of the queue, I knew that I did not have my school dinner money. I can still see the whispered conversations between the dinner staff as they quietly and kindly agreed to let me through – and I can still feel that knot of trepidation and the sympathetic stares burning into my back.

“This all changed in 1973 when I was nine and we moved to inner London and thankfully, free school meals kicked in. We lived on a council estate in Islington and I was the eldest of four children and sometimes I went to school hungry. I remember feeling light-headed and having to go to the sick room because I felt dizzy and that took me out of the classroom and away from lessons. I was very self-defensive when a teacher would tactfully ask if I had eaten, and too proud to say I had not.

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“Free school meals provided me with a sense of reliability that I would get the sustenance I needed to perform at school and help my family manage what little resources they had available to them. Life was about getting by and there was no expectation from my parents that I would be academic or go to university, so when my primary school put me forward as one of three selected to try for a place at a Hackney girls’ grammar school and I got in, they were surprised but incredibly proud.

“In secondary school, we had to line up for free school meal vouchers at assembly and then hand them over in the lunch queue. There were relatively few of us on free school meals because it was a selective school and we were known as the ‘free school dinner girls’. I spent my whole time trying to hide my dinner vouchers. They were brightly coloured and came in a little book and you had one for each day of the week. I tucked them out of sight in a zipped pocket of my navy blue elastic school belt. Nobody wants to be different at school and I felt such shame and embarrassment. Girls of that age can be quite unkind, but I had no alternative and I now realise how lucky I was.

“I have no photographs of me at school and we could never afford to buy the class photograph, nor did I play any sports or join any societies because that might involve additional travel or expenditure. It was a no-frills upbringing, to be sure, but we had one thing we could depend on – a hot lunch every school day.

“I was inspired to found #FreeMadeMe out of the realisation that children today still face that dilemma of not being certain of a school meal. I did go to university, I made a successful career in the law and over time, that veneer of professionalism buried my humiliation, so why am I choosing to bare my soul now? It’s because I would not be where I am today without those free school dinners, and I hope that others will be prepared to stand up and say the same.

“I look at those children living in poverty who are not getting free school meals and I think, that could be me. Systems have thankfully changed today and nobody would know if you’re on free school meals as the process has been normalised and the stigma removed, but we still need to flip the mindset that it is a state handout, a favour, a drain on resources. Giving a child a school meal is an investment in their education, their health and in our future. That is why I am proud to stand up and say #FreeMadeMe.”

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