Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:15 pm on 20th October 2009.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools) 1:15 pm, 20th October 2009

I am delighted to receive that invitation. Actually, I was about to say that having visited Newham and Wolverhampton, I would be pleased to go and see for myself some of the primary schools in Durham and talk to the teachers and pupils to find out what they think about the meals.

We started the pilots because we wanted a robust and independent evaluation of the benefits to children of eating free school meals. We wanted to see whether having a free healthy meal would reduce childhood obesity and change eating habits at home, and whether school standards would rise. That information will lead us to a decision about the value for money in extending the project. The design of the pilots focuses on encouraging healthy eating habits in children from a young age-in primary school-and throughout their time at school, so that they are not tempted to eat junk food by the time they reach secondary school.

I want to speak generally about the uptake of free school meals. As my hon. Friend knows, the key is that children and parents are fully behind the meals, and that the school is actively promoting healthy food and the benefits of a school lunch. There is clear evidence that although most children who are eligible for free school meals take school lunch, there are still too many who do not. Figures from the January 2009 annual schools census show that 16 per cent. of nursery and primary school pupils are known to be eligible for the meals but only 13.6 per cent. take them up, and 13.4 per cent. of secondary school pupils are known to be eligible but only 10.3 per cent. take them up. It is vital that schools work with their local authorities and the School Food Trust to ensure that those who are eligible for free school meals know that they are.