Expand free school meals to combat ‘devastating’ cost of living impact, health experts urge

The availability of free school meals has to be extended to all children in households on universal credit to combat the “devastating impact” of the cost of living crisis, ministers have been told.

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More than 35 healthcare leaders and charity bosses have written to the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, and the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, demanding an “urgent” expansion of the Free School Meals Scheme to “improve children’s nutrition and protect their health”.

The Independent’s Feed the Future campaign in partnership with a coalition of organisations coordinated by the Food Foundation, is calling on the government to extend free school meals to all children in poverty in England. Currently, 800,000 children live in households on universal credit but miss out on free school meals because their parents earn more than £7,400 a year, excluding benefits.

Health experts have backed our campaign in making this call and have warned that children will be more susceptible to cancer and infectious diseases without action to improve nutrition and combat hunger. The signatories write that good nutrition “lies at the heart of health and wellbeing for children and young people”.

“Without it, health outcomes worsen as do children’s life chances, as well as pressure on the NHS. Investing in the Free School Meals scheme would have long-term positive economic benefits in savings to the NHS, and the wider economy.”

In the letter, they cite research conducted by the Food Foundation showing that levels of food insecurity among households with children have more than doubled since January, reaching 25.8 per cent in September 2022.

The signatories include Dr Camilla Kingdon, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, as well as Pat Cullen, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.

Dr Sonia Adesara, a GP in Tottenham and health campaigner, said: “Children are also going hungry, and that can impact their education and ability to learn. Offering children healthy food should be one of the basic things we are getting right. Children who eat an unhealthy diet are more likely to be obese or develop diabetes and cardiac problems in the future, so we are setting these children up to fail in life by not giving them a nutritious meal at school.”

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