I have spoken before about growing up on free school meals and how important they are to children and families, but also about the stigma that was palpable and what it actually felt like to grow up poor. Colleagues will know that I am incredibly passionate about this issue. I set up, and have chaired for over 10 years, the all-party parliamentary group on school food.
Progress has been made. However, the images of some of the food parcels given to families in the past few weeks have shocked us all and rightly shamed the companies that provided them. Families deserve dignity and should expect high-quality food to ensure that their children continue to eat healthy food throughout the school closures. But stale bread, browning bananas, peppers and tomatoes cut in half and processed cheese do not meet those expectations for the standards of meals in our schools. There is no silver bullet for replacing the lovely hot, healthy meals that children were due to receive in school, but the Government must accept that families have agency to go shopping and buy and prepare the food that works for them by themselves. Extensive research by the World Bank in all world economies, not just the poorest, proves that cash transfers work and that concerns around their use on “temptation goods” are “unfounded”. We should trust parents to do right by their children and give them the means to do so when schools are closed.
Food and access to it is going to be so important to our covid recovery. That is why, when children return to school, I want them to return to the hot and healthy meals they need and deserve. That means the Government supporting the schools’ food supply chain and making a commitment that we will not see any move away from hot and healthy free school meals when schools reopen. Free school meals have been hard fought for for over 115 years, and it is crucial that we protect them for children and families of the future who will need them too.
On Friday, I met headteachers in my constituency who told me of children working well into the night because their parents had to use the only laptop in the house for work during the day. In other homes, children are expected to share a device with five siblings. How can we hope for our young people to develop when we feed them poorly and force them to learn on one sixth of a shared computer with limited data access? The Government really must do better, and they have a chance tonight to accept that.