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Proposed plans to cut free school meals for infants could lead to an increase in childhood health problems and obesity.
Earlier this month it was revealed that the Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) initiative was the subject of a spending review by the Department of Education.
The previous coalition government, Nick Clegg introduced the policy in September 2014 and the new Conservative Government committed to keeping it in their 2015 manifesto. However it has been revealed that the policy is under threat as part of Chancellor George Osbourne’s November spending review.
Speaking to The Sunday Times, Jamie Oliver who advises the Government on child obesity, commented: “The free school meals initiative for all infants has been a major step forward for children’s health and academic performance. It gives kids a great start at school, opening them up to different foods, and crucially it is transforming the food culture in our schools by taking away the need for parents to make a packed lunch. It would be a disaster if it were to be taken away.”
Current figures suggest that one in three children leave primary school overweight or obese and encouraging children to eat healthy and balanced diet has become increasing important. The UIFSM scheme saves parents of reception, year one and year two pupils around £400 per child per year.
One per cent of packed lunches meet national standards for school food
More than 40 leading health officials, dentists and consults have signed a letter, published in The Sunday Times, claiming it would be ‘short-sighted’ for ministers to cut the £600 million service, warning of the health challenges faced by overweight and obese children. These include insulin resistance, hypertension, early signs of heart disease, asthma and poor mental health, risks that increase as they enter adulthood.
The School Food Plan reports that only one per cent of packed lunches meet national standards for school food, compared to children who eat a healthy school lunch, who consume more vegetables and fewer crisps and sugary drinks.
Health officials stressed that a free school meals policy could pay for itself by reducing the cost to the NHS of treating childhood obesity and diet related illness and disease. Describing the free school meals initiative for infants as the ‘bedrock of a transformative childhood obesity strategy’ officials recognised the importance of a health school lunch strategy that targets marketing and pricing of less health food and drink options, in addition to boosting schools’ teaching of food education.
The letter was supported by signatories from key health organisations, including: Professor Lord Darzi, Institute of Global Health Innovation; Professor Baroness Hollins, British Medical Association; Louise Ansari, Diabetes UK; Dr Nigel Carter, British Dental Health Foundation; Malcolm Clark, Children’s Food Campaign; Professor David Haslam, National Obesity Forum and Kawther Hashem, Action on Sugar.
Speaking to Sky News, The Prime Minister, David Cameron said: "We're very proud of what we've done with free school meals. It was an excellent reform carried out in the last parliament.
"We are now going to have a spending review where obviously we have to make sure that we are delivering on our spending promises, but we are very proud of what we've done with free school meals."
Most of the £54 billion funding allocated to the Department for Education is ring-fenced, while £14 billion is allocated for early years education, teacher training, colleges and UIFSM, these are not protected from spending cuts.
’No child should be hindered because they are not eating a nutritious meal at lunchtime’
The Department of Education has refused to rule out scrapping the initiative, a Government spokesperson commented: “The Department of Education refuses to rule out scrapping the scheme.”
Commenting on the plans, a Government spokesman said: "We believe that every child, regardless of their background, should have the same opportunities.
"That is at the heart of what we are doing with school food – no child should be hindered because they are not eating a nutritious meal at lunchtime."
Government food advisors, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, who previously published a report into school dinners two years, have pledged their support to the campaign to keep free school meals.
Following recent campaigns by Jamie Oliver, drawing attention to the need for a sugar tax to target obesity and health problems in children. The letter calls on ministers to tax sugary drinks and introduce tougher rules for food and drink advertising, stating, ‘It simply is not right in this day and age that we have children turning up at school with a packed lunch, with a slice of white bread spread with chocolate paste and a fizzy drink.’
Chef Raymond Blanc has also pledged his support to the campaign save free school meals, and a petition of support already has more than 20,000 signatures, while one launched by Jamie Oliver supporting a sugar tax, has exceeded 100,000.
28 Sep 2015 9:45 PM
Why on earth would they stop free school meals? Sadly, for some children, that's the only decent meal they get since their parents don't care about their health.