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Social Justice

Expanding free school meals for all children on universal credit could bring billions in economic gains, government told

Research conducted by PwC for a new campaign found free school meals bring considerable economic benefits.

Expanding the free school meals scheme would generate billions for the UK economy, new research has found, at a time when Liz Truss’s new government is promising to deliver economic growth.

The new analysis, commissioned by the Impact for Urban Health and analysed by PwC, revealed expanding the free school meals scheme to include every child in households on universal credit would “deliver significant economic benefits” over the next 20 years.

“The cost-of-living crisis is having an awful impact on children with many going hungry and not getting the nutrition they need to grow up healthily,” said Anna Taylor, executive director at the Food Foundation, which is using the research to launch a fresh call to expand the scope of free school meals following its campaigning with footballer Marcus Rashford throughout the pandemic.

“This is being seen by people across the country and our findings released today clearly demonstrate that the public believe that the government needs to do more to help these children. We strongly urge the government to listen and urgently act to ensure that our children in need are guaranteed at least one nutritious meal a day at school.”

For every £1 invested in providing free school meals to all children in households on universal credit, £1.38 would be returned over the next 20 years through “core benefits” across social, health and educational areas, according to the research.

This would result in £8.9 billion for the economy in core benefits, helping with savings in schools, increased lifetime earnings and contributions, increased savings on food costs for families and savings for the NHS.

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A further £16.3 billion of indirect benefits could come through wider economic and supply chain gains, such as growing the school food economy through expansion of school catering employment opportunities, resulting in £25.2 billion total potential benefits. 

Such an expansion would feed an extra 800,000 children, a move campaigners have long called for but the government has resisted.

“At a time when the government is looking for ways to drive growth, this ground-breaking research shows that investing in expanding free school meals is a cost-effective way to drive economic growth and create a healthier society,” said Kieron Boyle, chief executive of Urban Health.

The government declined to comment.

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The national food strategy, led by restaurant founder and government adviser Henry Dimbleby, recommended expanding free school meals in June but the plea was ignored.

In response, Dimbleby – who co-founded the Leon fast food restaurant chain – said the strategy was “not a strategy”.

He added that the government’s spending on free school meals was failing to keep pace with inflation and told Sky News: “I hope this is under urgent review because this number needs to go up.”

Expanding the free school meals scheme to all children in state schools would be even more beneficial to the economy, according to the research.

Under a universal free school meals programme every £1 invested would return £1.71 in core benefits over the next 20 years, amounting to £41.3 billion at a cost of £24.2 billion. A further £58.2bn of indirect benefits could arise, totalling £99.5 billion.

The new campaign – Feed the Future – is calling on the government to expand the eligibility of free school meals to all children from households receiving universal credit. Backed by celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, it is calling on the public to write to their MP. And the general population is supporting the campaign too. 

According to a survey by the Food Foundation and YouGov, 72 per cent of the English public support the expansion of free school meals to all children on universal credit. 

Boyle said the research “provides more than enough evidence for a transformational policy shift in school food and together with our partners, including the school food review coalition, we urge the government to take this opportunity to create a more equitable school food system so more children are healthier and given the best chance in life.”

Labour have promised to introduce free breakfast clubs at every primary school across the country. Responding to the plans, Tom Kerridge told the Big Issue: “This is a fantastic start to a wider conversation about a better infrastructure for children in need of a filling breakfast to get the through the day. 

“It’s an amazing policy pledge, and one that I hope is followed up on but perhaps maybe even the government can borrow it now and move it forward at a faster pace.”

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