Free school meals scheme in one of UK's poorest areas faces axe

Funding cuts threaten project in Newham, east London, that feeds thousands of children

A pioneering scheme providing free school meals to all primary school pupils in one of the UK’s poorest boroughs faces the axe as a result of funding cuts, leaving thousands of deprived youngsters at risk of missing out on a nutritious dinner.

On the same day that Jacob Rees-Mogg came under fire for accusing Unicef of a “political stunt” for stepping in to help feed hungry children in the UK, Newham council said its universal free school meals (USFM) scheme was no longer affordable.

The USFM, which has run for 11 years, guarantees all three- to 11-year-olds in the east London borough a free dinner during term time.

Local MPs and school leaders praised the scheme as “life-changing” and said they were worried about the impact the proposed cut would have on the health and educational development of thousands of children whose families are struggling financially, particularly in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The issue of growing child hunger and food insecurity has repeatedly flared up owing to Marcus Rashford’s high-profile holiday hunger campaigns, record food bank demand and spiralling poverty and destitution.

Wednesday’s announcement that the UN humanitarian aid agency Unicef was to fund emergency food packages to south London schools – the first time it had intervened in the UK in its 70-history – has caused further controversy.

Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, defended the government’s response to tackling child poverty and said Unicef should be “ashamed of itself”.

“I think it’s a real scandal that Unicef should be playing politics in this way when it is meant to be looking after people in the poorest, the most deprived countries in the world, where people are starving, where there are famines and there are civil wars,” he said. “And they make cheap political points of this kind, giving, I think, £25,000 to one council. It is a political stunt of the lowest order.”

His comments prompted a backlash, with Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, saying: “The only people who should be ashamed of themselves are Boris Johnson and the rest of his government for letting our children go hungry. In one of the richest countries in the world, our children should not be forced to rely on a charity that usually works in war zones and in response to humanitarian disasters.”

The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, said: “Rees-Mogg’s sneering comments are abhorrent – a modern day version of ‘let them eat cake’.”

Rees-Mogg’s remarks were also criticised by a food bank manager in Peckham, south London. Chris Price, who runs Pecan food bank, said: “It is not a stunt. My food bank fed 461% more children in the six months from April to September. That’s over 3,000 extra children. It’s not about politics, it is about children’s health and wellbeing.”

Meanwhile, Rashford’s mother, Melanie Maynard, spoke on Thursday of her experiences of food insecurity in an interview the BBC, saying she would sometimes go without food to ensure her children could eat.

“I had three jobs and if I didn’t do that we wouldn’t have been able to cook a pot of food, it’s just a bit difficult,” she said. “Sometimes we didn’t even have a loaf of bread in the house. It’s embarrassing to say, but we didn’t.”

Rashford has a key campaign aim of extending free school meals to an extra 1.5 million English children in households on universal credit, a demand borrowed from Henry Dimbleby, the author of the government-commissioned national food strategy, who said free school meals were essential to tackle what he saw as a Covid-linked “rise in food insecurity and outright hunger”.

All primary school pupils in England from reception to year 2 receive free school meals under the government scheme. Newham extends that offer to years 3 to 6, with just under 14,000 children benefiting. It is one of just four such schemes in England, alongside Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets.

The proposed cut would force thousands of families to contribute up to £270 a year for each of their children in years 3 to 6.

Newham council sees its UFSM scheme as a valuable bulwark against hunger and poverty, but £250m of budget cuts over the past decade and the rising cost of Covid mean it is – in common with other councils – having to consider reducing or closing “non-core” services that it has no legal duty to provide.

Sarah Ruiz, Newham council’s cabinet member for education and children social care, said the unprecedented economic situation facing the borough “leaves us with no choice but to look very carefully at how best to make the savings we need”.

Half of all children in Newham live in poverty, making it the second poorest borough in England after Tower Hamlets. Hunger is a growing problem in the borough during the pandemic, and already just under a quarter of Newham’s children are food insecure, meaning they regularly miss meals or go hungry.

The Labour MP for East Ham, Stephen Timms, said: “I sympathise with Newham council, who have been financially squeezed and are under huge pressure. But at a time when the universal free school meal scheme is needed now more than ever I believe this particular cut should not go ahead.”

Ben Levinson, the headteacher at Kensington primary school in Newham, said the UFSM scheme had made a “life-changing” difference to the community, especially to children from struggling working families and migrant households, neither of whom were eligible for free school meals.

“Councils are strapped financially, so they have to make hard decisions, but we do worry about the impact of this,” he said. “It does feel like the wrong decision at the wrong time.”

The proposed £1.9m cut would not affect those children who qualify for free school meals, or affect eligibility for government-funded school holiday food support schemes. If it goes ahead it will start in September 2021.


Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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