Greater entitlement to free school meals would reduce stigma, shame ­– and hunger

Rebecca O’Connell, Julia Brannen and Abigail Knight

The Conservative Manifesto proposes to end free school meals for all at key stage 1 and instead offer primary children free breakfast. What impact would this have?

For more than a century the UK government has provided free school meals (FSM) to children whose education might otherwise suffer. Today, school meals are a particular priority for children’s wellbeing, especially for the nearly 4 million children living in poverty. This is because of rising food prices, reduced household incomes – particularly for families with children – and cuts to the welfare benefit system. Recent research suggests that young people are not benefiting fully from free school meals because of issues of eligibility, adequacy and delivery.

Our ongoing study of 45 young people aged 11-15 and their parents in low income households living in two disadvantaged UK areas adds to this evidence.

Our research has found that, although around half of the young people in the study were receiving FSM, around half were not eligible. Most usually this was because their parents were in receipt of Working Tax Credits (WTC), whilst in other cases the family’s immigration status meant they had no recourse to public funds (NRPF).

Children’s access to and experiences of school meals were also determined by school practice. Some children had positive experiences while others reported exclusion, shame and stigma because of their FSM status. Dependent on their school lunch for their main meal of the day, some children said the food was inadequate to keep up their energy levels.

Parents receiving WTC (the ‘just about managing’) said the cost of school meals placed an additional burden upon scarce household resources whilst children reported their lunch money was inadequate. Some schools managed to fund meals for children with NRPF from their own budgets, but others did not. Young people in this group, the most severely deprived children in the country, often reported going hungry at school. One boy told us how he hid in the library at lunchtimes to avoid the embarrassment and pain of watching others eat while he could not.

Central to UK policy is the emphasis on employment as a vehicle for alleviating poverty. However, as a recent study by the University of Cardiff suggests, the largest proportion of households with children living in relative poverty includes at least one employed adult. It shows that in the period 1997/8-2014/15 the risk of poverty for children has risen by 17% in household where all adults work and by 32% for those living in households where some but not all adults work. In addition, welfare support has been increasingly withheld by successive governments as a tool for controlling immigration, creating hunger among these children and leaving families with NRPF totally dependent on charity.

The UK Faculty of Public Health has stated that increasing malnutrition and hunger constitutes a ‘public health emergency’. Indeed it is. But it is a social emergency too. The social and psychological effects of food poverty include isolation, stigma and shame. School meals create social integration and inclusion. Over 100 years ago the House of Commons passed the 1906 Provision of School Meals Act. As Margaret McMillan argued, if the state insists on compulsory education, it must take responsibility for the proper nourishment of school children. Government should be seeking to extend – not restrict – entitlement to FSM to reduce, if not eliminate, social stigma and fragmentation as well as nutritional and health inequalities.

This research forms part of a larger European Research Council funded mixed methods study called ‘Families and Food in Hard Times’, based at the Thomas Coram Research Unit UCL Institute of Education, that examines food poverty among young people and their families in the UK, Portugal and Norway. The research is funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) /ERC grant agreement n° 337977.

For a discussion of food poverty in the context of UK austerity see our chapter in Vickie Cooper and David Whyte (eds). The Violence of Austerity (Pluto, May 2017).

Photo by Cheshire East Council via Creative Commons

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Posted in Childhood & early education, Evidence-based policy, Social sciences and social policy
2 comments on “Greater entitlement to free school meals would reduce stigma, shame ­– and hunger
  1. Elizabeth Tindle says:

    I received free school meals at my Grammar School until the age of almost 19. Nutritious food helped me to Dux selective schools. And go on to get a Doctor of Education. My husband also received free meals and did a PhD in Immunology. He was Director of a Research Institute before he retired. Free dinners are important for many families.

  2. Andrew Jolley says:

    I would be interested to know in knowing how many of those children feeling stigmatised by receiving FSM are in infsnt. School

    It’s my understanding that today’s schools go to great lengths to ensure FSM children are not identified. What examples did you see that the stigma was specifically about FSM eligibility, rather than the wider issue of living in poverty.

    Certainly in my experience the fear of stigma coming from adults is far more of an issue, that the receipt of fsm by younger children.

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