Page last updated at 10:42 GMT, Friday, 25 July 2008 11:42 UK

Primary 'free school meals' call

School canteen

Ministers are being urged to offer free school meals to all primary school pupils in England.

Currently, free meals are only offered to children from poorer families.

But Labour-affiliated unions want the means test to be removed, so that all primary school children can receive a free healthy canteen lunch.

A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesman said it was looking at the results of a free meals pilot in Hull, but had no plans to extend it.

Delegates at Labour's National Policy Forum in Warwick are understood to have tabled an amendment calling for the change.

Serving up a free healthy lunch in every school would bring benefits to the nation's collective health.
Sharon Hodgson

They hope it will boost the number of pupils taking the meals, which are now subject to strict nutritional guidelines.

Figures released earlier this month revealed that take-up of healthy school dinners has risen in primary schools for the first time since 2004 to 43.6%.

In 2006, new rules were introduced banning vending machines and junk food from school canteens and requiring schools to produce more nutritious meals.

There are also calls from an MP writing in the Fabian Review, the quarterly magazine published by the Fabian Society which has long-standing links to the Labour Party.

Sharon Hodgson, MP for Gateshead East and Washington West, argues: "All parents are feeling the pinch and universal free school meals would ease the pressure on purse strings at home and, eventually, in the Treasury.

"The chance to influence the eating habits of all children is one not to be missed."

She adds: "Serving up a free healthy lunch in every school would bring benefits to the nation's collective health, educational attainment and environmental credentials."

Mrs Hodgson says an evaluation of a pilot scheme in Hull shows there is a positive impact of making free school meals universally available.

But that the idea was scrapped after a change in the ruling party on council.

Mrs Hodgson says she was inspired by what she saw during a visit to schools in Sweden.

'New kitchens'

"Lunch was an integral part of the curriculum with all children eating a healthy meal alongside their teachers.

"The food was tasty, healthy and appetising. All the children tucked in heartily, helped themselves to seconds and tidied up after themselves before retuning to wipe down the tables.

"When I asked whether that was normal behaviour, the Swedish teachers were astonished that we did not do the same here.

"They asked whether we did not realise how important it is that children eat a good, nutritious meal at lunch time if they are to concentrate and learn."

A DCSF spokesman said: "We've invested over 650 million to transform school lunches - to improve nutritional standards and training; build new kitchens; and raise take up, particularly among the 210,000 children who we know qualify for free school meals but do not claim them.

"Local authorities already have the power to extend free school meals provision to those they consider need it.

"We are looking at Hull's experiment of offering free school meals to all primary school pupils but have no current plans to change existing national policy."

Child Poverty Action Group's head of policy Paul Dornan said where free school meals for all had been been tried, they had been a great success.

"Children who sit down every day to a good quality meal together are healthier, happier, learn better and socialise better.

"This would be good news for all children, especially low income families facing rising prices who would save 300 per child on the costs of paying for school meals or pack lunches."




SEE ALSO
Schools told to end meals decline
02 Oct 07 |  Education
School meals 'must be made free'
26 Apr 05 |  Education
Pupils shunning healthy canteens
07 Jul 08 |  Education
School-gate fast food ban urged
28 Mar 08 |  Health
Meals take-up rises in primaries
10 Jul 08 |  Education

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