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

That was clear from my experience in my constituency of Kingston upon Hull, North. When there were free school meals in primary schools, that was exactly what parents and teachers were saying to me. The stigma attached to them in the past had gone, and that will be an important part of our evaluation of the success of the pilots in Durham and Newham.

In the pilots, we obviously focused on areas of the country with deprivation and low incomes, because we felt that those areas were most likely to benefit from the extension of free school meals. As my hon. Friend said, they are a great way of putting money back into the pockets of the hardest hit in the current recession and of improving children's health and fitness. However, we recognise that not all children in the pilots will be from low-income families. We want to improve the health and educational benefits for all children, not just those from a low-income background. Not all children who can afford school meals eat them, so it is right that the pilots test to see whether offering free school meals helps children across a spectrum of families.

On the early evidence about the uptake of meals, as my hon. Friend said, the pilots have been in operation only since September, but already positive feedback is being received in local areas. As she explained, average school lunch take-up is estimated to be about 80 per cent. in Durham, and I understand that around 10 schools are achieving take-up of 100 per cent., compared with around 49 per cent. before the pilot started.

Opposition Members raised objections at the start of the pilots that many of the areas would not be ready for them because of the lack of kitchens. It is clear to me, from my hon. Friend's experience in Durham and from the statistics, that those objections were unjustified.