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There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

I blogged a few weeks ago on the pending crisis facing schools through the introduction of ‘fairer’ funding – fairer in the sense that almost all schools will be facing real term reductions in budgets. So with an election looming, it’s a chance to get school funding back on the agenda and for the politicians to make some promises to the electorate, in return for those all-important votes.

The good news here is that last Thursday the Prime Minister unveiled the Tory party’s plan to increase schools’ funding by about £4bn over the next parliament. The bad news is they plan to fund this through ending free school lunches for all but the poorest children in the first three years of primary school – but provide free breakfasts for pupils instead.

When the policy of Universal Free School Meals was introduced in the last parliament, I have to say I was a bit sceptical, questioning why the taxpayer should be funding lunches for children whose families could clearly afford to pay for them. Three years on I can see that this policy has been hugely successful, and for some children it has been life changing.

The introduction of Universal Free School Meals allowed our school to introduce the expectation that all of our youngest children have a healthy hot meal, lovingly cooked every day from fresh ingredients in the school kitchen by Mustafa and his team. It has been so heartening to see, with some encouragement, the youngest children experiencing new tastes and textures, whilst eating and enjoying a really wide range of healthy foods. What is clear is that children will try things at school that they won’t at home. The ‘family dining’ arrangement has been a huge success, with teachers serving and sitting with the youngest children, talking about food and all manner of other things, without so much as a packet of Dairylea Lunchables, cheese strings or Sunny Delight in sight. The community is talking about nutrition and a food culture has been created.

Our menus have options that are old favourites, but we’ve added some more challenging dishes too. Mustafa’s tagines perhaps, or the salmon gratin, took a while to be embraced, but these dishes are now routinely demolished by our youngest children.  The warm mackerel and beetroot salad was perhaps a bit too sophisticated for some, but it certainly made me happy whilst it lasted! And the result is that these children will continue to eat healthily as they go through school and through life. They’ll enjoy their food, enjoy tasting new things, enjoy cooking and being adventurous. They won’t be drawn to the toxic mix of low-grade carbohydrate, processed meats, sugar and fat that is having such a disastrous impact on the nation’s health and the root cause of the epidemic of obesity and type-2 diabetes.

So who will really be paying for the new funding pledged in the Tory manifesto? Quite simply it will be funded by our children’s long-term health. As Jamie Oliver said on Friday “If you speak to Mark Carney and the people at the highest level of economics, if you speak to Oxford, Cambridge University on the economic modelling of public health and the cost of ill-health and the investment, it’s the best bang for your buck you’re going to get. Don’t take from the kids, don’t take from the teachers.”

William