Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Such thing as a free lunch

When Labour took office in Southwark last May we inherited from the Liberal Democrat administration the highest level of childhood obesity in the UK. Over a quarter of our 10-11 year olds were obese – children from across the borough, from all financial backgrounds.

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At the same time, Southwark has very high levels of deprivation – a third of our children are in poverty. Many more families are on modest incomes. And a family with a household income of £17,000 – the average income in Southwark – does not get the government’s free school meals.

For these reasons we are bringing in Free Healthy School Meals for all pupils in Southwark’s primary schools.

Our policy will help tackle obesity, by ensuring pupils can have at least one healthy meal a day. It will also put hundreds of pounds a year in parents’ pockets when they need it most – and at a time when the government is squeezing people on low and middle incomes.

We are currently piloting the policy in reception and year one in 10 primary schools, and will roll out to all our primary schools next academic year – initially to specific year groups. By September 2013 it will have been rolled out to all year groups in all our primary schools.

Southwark Labour made this policy a manifesto pledge last year. It is popular with teachers, with parents and with children. Yet the local opposition are calling on us to break our pledge – they criticise us for keeping our promises.

Some of the media coverage has suggested that we’re bringing this in to stop any stigma when children get the government’s free school meals. That’s not why we’re doing it. But research* shows that nationally around a fifth of eligible children do not take up government free school meals, which may in part be due to perceived stigma. Other boroughs who have already brought in similar policies told me they’ve found that the number of children claiming the government’s free school meals goes up – and emerging findings are that the same will be true in Southwark.

The knock-on effect for schools, where, for example, the pupil premium is based on numbers of pupils claiming government free school meals, is that they should see an increase in their direct government funding.

And there are other benefits.

Recent research – about a different programme: Jamie Oliver’s Healthy School Dinners – suggests that pupils eating a healthy meal at lunchtime have fewer days off sick and get better results.

And London Assembly research says that if today’s obese children become obese adults it could cost £111m a year in loss of productivity and additional healthcare costs in London alone.

We are right to act.

At a time when Southwark is experiencing one of the worst budget settlements from government in London, and we have had to make difficult decisions about our own budgets, this policy is an investment in our children’s futures, and puts money in parents’ pockets now.

*The Child Poverty Action Group says ‘twenty per cent of children entitled to free school meals do not take them – a major reason is stigma’



Photo: UK Parliament

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Catherine McDonald

is cabinet member for children’s services, London borough of Southwark, and tweets @cath_mcdonald

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