Saturday, 17 July 2010

Food as a political issue

During the recent local election in Southwark, Labour made a pledge to introduce free school meals to all primary school children across the borough.  This was unfunded.  They probably didn't expect to win (they weren't the only ones, sadly).  Anyway, they did and now they are trying to find ways to fulfil this pledge or maybe a way of backing out of it while saving face...

Primary schools in Southwark are being invited to take part in a local pilot beginning in September.  Schools taking part will choose 1 year group, those children will be offered free school meals and the school will be offered additional support in working with children, school staff and parents/carers on understanding the benefits of healthy meals on long-term health and wellbeing and maintenance of a healthy weight.  The findings will then be analysed alongside the results of 3 ongoing national pilots (in Newham, Wolverhampton & Durham) to inform the roll-out to all schools in the borough.

Several things about this idea trouble me.  Firstly, the 3 national pilots have been up and running for 1 year already and are being co-ordinated by the DfE, with research ongoing by NCSR , into not simply the issue of obesity but also behaviour, concentration and academic attainment.  The Southwark approach seems a bit of a stop-gap, 'on the hoof' idea with no real focus.  Why do this when a national, properly funded study is mid-way along and will report its findings about 18 months from now?   How is the study of 1 year group per school going to, for instance, inform the Council about the capital investment necessary to enable that school to offer free school meals to all its pupils?   It just seems a bit pointless - as if they have to be seen to be acting on their pledge, so they have come up with this.   In the meantime, it will be increasingly obvious that it is unaffordable and they will be able to say that they tried but the Coalition government policies made it impossible.   

Maybe the real question is why, after 13 years of a Labour government the key measure of child poverty ie FSM take-up, is relatively unchanged in Southwark.


  1. Help, I expect I'm just being slow but I honestly don't understand how free school meals are going to improve nutrition, seeing as packed lunches have healthy eating guidelines (no crisps, biscuits etc) and school meals have veg as optional.
    Having said that I give my kids school meals cos they're a bit fussy and packed lunch would be endless marmite sandwiches- I think it's healthier that they get a variety of food.
    Please explain more.

  2. At the moment, kids get to choose so if they want to just have plain pasta or potatoes and pudding and custard every day - they can. It takes an enormous amount of whole school input to change children's habits a la Jamie Oliver and the trouble is that that takes money which schools don't have and government, whether local or national is not promising either. In addition, it is known that obesity is an issue which disproportionately affects the poorest children ie those eligible for FSM. So if they are already accessing FSM and they are obese, the inference is that the problem is the choices they are making, rather than the issue of FSM itself. In other words they are choosing carb, fat-laden food because that is what they are familiar with at home. The real investment is needed, not necessarily in FSM for everyone but much better education and resources and support to enable those children and families who are eligible, to choose the healthy option when they take up FSM.