A few weeks ago, I had a slightly surreal conversation with Boris Johnson in a lift in which he said all children should eat school dinners. Last week the School Food Plan was launched amid outraged headlines suggesting that the main recommendation is a ban on packed lunches. It isn’t (and it doesn’t) but given the plan points out that only one per cent of packed lunches are nutritionally balanced, it wouldn’t have been a totally unreasonable recommendation to make.
Given the political preoccupations of the Labour party in the last fortnight, the plan received less attention among left-of-centre bloggers than it might otherwise have done. Written by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent – founders of the Leon healthy fast food chain – one of the strengths of the paper is that it is not written by civil servants and is refreshingly open in giving credit where credit is due. I suspect that no civil servant in the current climate would have written that ‘Having looked closely at the evidence, we believe that the Blair government was right to introduce [food] standards into schools’ or used the successful Labour initiated pilots as evidence for promotion of universal free school meals.
The report effectively picks up the Jamie Oliver mantle using terminology and examples that work in the current political landscape. It highlights the issue that for the 60 per cent of children who do not eat school food, school food standards are largely irrelevant. It recommends food-based standards rather than nutritional standards, arguing these are easier to manage for schools and still nutritionally balanced when tested.
It is easy to throw stones at a government that has policies that are responsible for driving increased numbers of children into poverty. It would be easy to argue that it is hypocritical to on the one hand remove academies and free schools from the requirement to meet nutritional standards in school food but on the other support the recommendations of the Plan to develop and introduce food based standards. But we should welcome the U-turn. If we are going to have long-term solutions that address take-up of school meals, child nutrition and obesity, this is something that we need to have a consensus on between the political parties. This is not least because hungry children don’t learn and when children eat good food, results go up.
For those of us within the Labour party who are not only convinced of the merit of free school meals for all but positively evangelical about it as the ultimate One Nation policy, the School Food Plan should be welcomed. Its publication suggests that – as in countries such as Sweden and Finland which have free school meals for all – a consensus is possible. It is slightly galling that it is a Tory-led government that has agreed to investigate further the case for extending free school meal entitlement and that Michael Gove of all political ‘hate figures’ has said he agrees in principle with the policy of free school meals for all. However, it demonstrates how when you start digging down in to the merits of the policy the evidence (from our pilots) speaks for itself. Gove is hesitant on the practical implementation: both he and our frontbench need persuading on where the money will come from. Meanwhile, on the ground there are a number of Labour councils that have pushed forward with this policy finding the money despite austerity. These councils – including Islington where Boris Johnson lives – are proving on a daily basis the value of free school meals for all to local communities and to politicians on both the left and the right. It is also worth noting that for national implementation at primary school level, the £900m estimated by the plan is a lot less money than might be supposed.
And for those who would agree with the main criticism that can be directed at the policy that ‘It is not right that the children of better-off parents should get their school meals for free’, I will offer up the School Food Plan’s response:
‘We have heard this argument made as a point of principle. We do not accept it. If you applied this reasoning across the board, you would need to dismantle the state school system and, indeed, the NHS. If there is a net benefit to children and the country as a result of universal free school meals, it should not matter if children from wealthier families get fed well too.’
With a Tory-sponsored School Food Plan concluding this, Labour needs to go one step further and be even bolder by matching practical resources up to our principles.
Fiona Twycross is a Labour member of the London assembly. She tweets @FionaTwycross
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