It’s time for national politicians to show more bravery and think long term if we are to make the money available for public services go much further. Whilst I welcome the Chanecllors announcement of funding for free school meals for junior school children in his Autumn statement I would like him to go much further. In my view one of the best invest to save schemes available would be extending free school meals to all primary school children.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's announcement of his intention to spend £600m on free school lunches for infants' school children at his party conference in September was a welcome start. Evidence from Scotland would suggest that at least 70% of pupils regularly take meals when free.
If the basic premise of investing public resources in giving kids a healthy meal at lunchtime has been accepted at this senior political level, APSE suggests taking it further. Investing a relatively small amount in free lunches for all primary school children would help save public resources associated with the cost of obesity and ill-health further down the line. This makes sense for the public purse when a quarter of children currently leave school obese and the NHS spent £10bn in 2012 alone treating illnesses caused by bad diet. The cost of obesity related illness to the country will be £60b per annum by 2050. Why not invest a fraction of that money now to start children off on the right track by giving them decent nutritious meal on a daily basis?
A closer relationship between local government and health has already started with councils taking on a public health role this April, so investing in free primary school lunches for all would be a perfect way of joining those dots. Blackpool Council invested £1m public health budget in free breakfasts for all primary school children and evaluation of the scheme by the University of Northumbria found pupils were more alert and performed better in classrooms. The researchers also identified potential to reduce inequalities in the nutritional quality of children’s diets and that the universal element of the scheme prevents stigma that can be associated with having free school meals. All of these benefits could equally apply to free school lunches.
The School Food Plan, produced this summer by restaurateurs Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent of the Leon chain for the Department for Education, highlighted the economic as well as the health and social benefits that could stem from increasing the number of children eating healthy school meals and set in train a range of initiatives to increase uptake, make school meal services economically viable and make food part of the curriculum.
APSE has campaigned for healthy school meals for decades and is now co-ordinating the Secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food. Data from APSE's performance networks, the largest voluntary benchmarking system for front-line council services nationally, reveals improved productivity and efficiency year on year among education caterers.
Examples from around the UK show school cooks have really come into their own in recent years with more imaginative menus, more appealing surroundings and creative marketing campaigns. This is not to mention a positive impact on local economies and environmental sustainability as education caterers increasingly source ingredients locally where possible. They are also becoming innovative in encouraging older pupils to stay on school grounds at lunch time, rather than heading off to buy unhealthy chips or pasties, with, for example, 'food pods' and cafés selling pre-ordered sandwiches of their choice to compete with commercial chains.
APSE's most recent annual survey of school catering managers reveals growing optimism about their role, showing that education caterers are ready to rise to the challenge of feeding 70% of the nation's youngsters a healthy lunch each day.
Learning to eat well at school can encourage healthy eating habits that last a lifetime and save literally billions of pounds by helping improve the health of future generations. The school meals sums add up. If politicians are brave enough to do them, there is such a thing as a free, free lunch.