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Eight hundred thousand more children in England from disadvantaged families should receive free school meals as part of a crackdown on food poverty, public health experts have demanded.
They are urging Rishi Sunak to increase the number of children and youth entitled to a free school lunch from 1.9 million to 2.7 million by including all families receiving universal credit.
The expansion should be financed by imposing new taxes on producers of unhealthy food and drink, they say, building on the success of the sugar tax on soft drinks that the Conservatives introduced in 2018.
A group of parliamentarians and peers from all parties, children’s charities and food activists back the public health groups’ call, which is contained in a letter to the prime minister.
They want you to remove the rule that prevents children from households with an income of more than £7,400 a year from receiving free school meals, even if their family is very poor.
The letter to Sunak states: “In October 2022, an estimated 800,000 children were living in poverty and did not have access to free school meals. This is unacceptable.”
He notes that the delegated administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff plan to offer all primary school children a free hot lunch by the end of next year. In contrast, however, eligibility in England is still restricted to young people living in households receiving £7,400 or less.
It is “imperative” that Sunak remove the £7,400 limit and instead change the rules so that any child who is part of a family eligible for universal credit can receive free school meals, the letter says.
The letter has been organized by four charities: the School of Public Health, the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Royal Society for Public Health and the School and Public Health Nurses Association.
Other signatories include: the Church of England Bishops of Durham and Gloucester; Lord Krebs, inaugural Chairman of the Food Standards Agency; Lady Boycott, former chair of the London Food Board; and the charities Barnardo’s, Save the Children and Magic Breakfast.
Politicians who have also signed the letter include: Lord Moynihan, the former Tory sports minister; Tim Farron, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats; Caroline Lucas, Westminster’s only Green MP; and several former Labor ministers, including Lady Armstrong and Ben Bradshaw.
The coalition is also calling on the prime minister to double from 2,500 to 5,000 the number of schools offering free breakfasts to poor pupils through the national school breakfast programme.
“Current Department for Education funding for the program only reaches a quarter of children and young people in England’s most deprived schools. [It] urgently needs expansion to cover a higher proportion of these disadvantaged students, with a long-term plan to cover all disadvantaged students in schools,” they say.
Sunak should also expand the number of pregnant women and families with a child under the age of four who are eligible to receive support to buy healthy food through the Healthy Start scheme by again extending eligibility to all families with universal credit who have a child. small, says the letter. .
“As the cost of living crisis rages, many families across the UK are currently struggling with the reality of food poverty, unable to meet even their most basic needs,” said Professor Kevin Fenton, Chair of the Faculty of Public health.
The three schemes together act as “a vital lifeline” for poor families. “But with too many children and families unable to access these services, the government is missing an opportunity to vigorously address the reality and impacts of child food poverty, which harms the lives and life chances of children and youth. disadvantaged across the UK,” he added. Fenton.
The government would not have to pay to address food poverty in this way if it instead introduced “new specific taxes on unhealthy food and beverages”, perhaps similar to the tax on salt and sugar recommended by the National Food Strategy. of the government in 2021, the letter adds.
Sharon White, executive director of the Association of Public Health and School Nurses, said: “School nurses are witnesses and are being asked to support a worrying number of families who are unable to feed their children adequately due to the cost crisis. of life; children arrive at school cold, tired, hungry, worried, sad and, as a result, unable to learn.”
A government spokesperson said: “More than a third of pupils in England currently receive free school meals and we have just announced additional investment in the national school breakfast scheme, extending the scheme for another year backed by up to £30m. “.