The mayor of London will tomorrow announce a bold emergency package to extend free school meals to every primary school child in the capital for one year, in an effort to help poorer families through the cost of living crisis.
Sadiq Khan’s £130m scheme will fund free meals for the 270,000 state primary school children in London who do not already receive free school meals, of whom an estimated 100,000 live in poverty.
It marks a major victory for The Independent’s Feed the Future campaign, in which we called for free school meals to be extended to all schoolchildren in England – both primary and secondary – who live in households on universal credit but miss out on free school meals because their household income, excluding benefits, is over the threshold of £7,400 a year.
This low threshold applies irrespective of the number of children in a family, and is causing deep hardship among families struggling with the spiralling cost of living.
The mayor, who backed our campaign and has repeatedly called on the government to extend free school meals to all children in poverty, said his scheme would be funded out of higher-than-expected collections of business rates and council tax, and would be for the 2023-24 academic year only.
City Hall said the scheme would save families £440 per child across the year, and that it would extend to all primary school children “so as to reduce the stigma that can be associated with being singled out as low-income”. The saving of £440 per child is based on the average cost of a hot meal of £2.30 over 190 school days.
Mr Khan heavily criticised the government for its “inaction” and made it clear that it would be up to the government to step in after the scheme came to an end.
The mayor, who is scheduled to formally announce his new plan on Monday, recalled his own experience as a child who received free school meals, saying: “I know from personal experience that free school meals are a lifeline. My siblings and I depended on them while at school, and my parents relied on them to give our family a little extra breathing room financially.
“The difference they can make to children at risk of going hungry, and to families struggling to make ends meet, is game-changing. The cost of living crisis means families and children across our city are in desperate need of additional support.”
He added: “I have repeatedly urged the government to provide free school meals to help already-stretched families, but they have simply failed to act. This is why I’m stepping forward with an emergency £130m scheme that will ensure every single primary pupil in the capital receives free school meals.”
The Independent’s campaign, in which we partnered with a consortium of groups led by charity The Food Foundation, highlighted the plight of the 800,000 children in poverty in England who are excluded from free school meals, and exposed how some hungry children were so desperate that they were stealing food from school canteens and supermarkets to eat.
Around 210,000 pupils in London – across years 3 to 11 – live in households that rely on universal credit but miss out on free school meals, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, and around half of them are expected to be covered by the mayor’s scheme.
It still leaves around 700,000 children in poverty who will not receive free school meals – including approximately 100,000 in London’s secondary schools and 600,000 outside of the capital.
Charities, union bosses and campaigners welcomed Mr Khan’s initiative.
Victoria Benson, chief executive of Gingerbread, the charity for single parents, said: “The cost of living crisis has been brutal for single parents, and has meant that children have gone without basic essentials because household budgets have been stretched beyond breaking point.
“We have heard from many single parents that they have had to go without food. It will be a huge relief that their child will now be fed at school, and we welcome the mayor’s initiative.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the mayor had shown the way for the government to act. “The government must now end its inaction and commit to funding free school meals for all in primary across the rest of the country, and long-term,” he said.
“This is a much-needed lifeline for families experiencing hardship following a decade of economic mismanagement from the government. It will help families navigate the cost of living crisis and ensure all children are fed during the school day. Children who have access to a healthy, hot meal every day are better able to focus, connect with their peers, and build bright futures.”
Research by accounting firm PwC published by The Independent has shown that investment in free school meals would yield a net economic benefit to society of £2.45bn over 20 years. PwC calculated that the cost would be £6.44bn over two decades, but would lead to benefits in educational attainment, mental and physical health, and productivity of £8.9bn.
Barbara Crowther of the Children’s Food Campaign said: “We applaud the mayor for announcing this vital nutritional safety net for every single primary school child in London. However, healthy school food for all must not just be an emergency measure, it should be a core part of a fully inclusive education system for the long term.”
Dame Emma Thompson said: “This initiative could not be more timely. The fact that it is needed at all is testament to the damaging policies of the last 20 years. It is essential that during this year we fight for the right of our children to a proper meal at school.”
The mayor’s scheme is proposed as part of his final Budget, which will be considered by the London Assembly on 23 February.
A City Hall spokesperson said: “The final Budget takes into account that council tax and business rates returns from local authorities are higher than were forecast in the mayor’s draft Budget proposals earlier this year. This additional proposed spending is principally driven by business rates, due to the stronger economic position of central London than previously reported in prior years.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies