Adam Price, leader of Plaid Cymru
If there was only one thing I could choose to change in this world, I would choose to end child poverty.
This is what I said almost exactly a year ago in the lead up to the general election last year. Child poverty was a scandal then and it is a scandal now.
The pandemic has pushed and continues to push families further into poverty – directly impacting their children’s quality of life and their futures.
The attainment gap between the most deprived and least deprived children in school is significant and, after months of school closures with a lack of digital connectivity and varying levels of support, this gap will only increase.
But there are steps we can take now, immediately, which can start to close this gap.
One of these steps is extending eligibility for Free School Meals.
The Welsh Government already extended its eligibility for Free School Meals to cover all school holidays but they can and need to go further.
We were all inspired by Marcus Rashford’s incredible campaigning for England to follow suit and not allow children to go hungry during school holidays, so why not adopt a similar attitude and apply the same sense of urgency to the thousands of children in Wales who are in need of Free School Meals but aren’t receiving them?
With this is mind, I’m calling on the Welsh Government to immediately extend FSM to any child in any family receiving universal credit or equivalent benefit, and any child in a family with no recourse to public funds.
This should be a step towards the aim to roll out universal Free School Meals. It is something being called for from various groups in Wales, including the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and the People’s Assembly.
By doing this, Wales would not be unique nor a guinea pig for such a policy. We can look to other European countries to see what positive impacts can be seen from universal Free School Meals.
Finland is a world-leader in universal Free School Meals and a key example of its positive effects, and in 2018 it celebrated 70 years of universal Free School Meals which started in the 1940s.
There, universal Free School Meals is seen as an investment in effective learning and a key contribution to national development. Its ‘school feeding system’ also includes food-related education which uses mealtimes as a holistic pedagogical tool, which raises awareness of the importance of healthy diets and nutrition and promotes social and interactive skills.
Sweden also provides Free School Meals for the majority of its school children (subject to school year, not socio-economic backgrounds), with it too placing emphasis on the nutritional quality of its meals.
And Scotland, a country which has led on digital connectivity during the pandemic and has heavily invested in its children and young people, has its sights on implementing similar measures. If the SNP is re-elected next year, the party’s Education Secretary has promised that from August 2022, every primary school pupil in Scotland will be eligible for free breakfast and lunch all year round.
The positive implications universal Free School Meals have is overwhelming. Such a scheme, for example, would put a dent in tackling inequalities and child poverty.
A recent study by CPAG found that over half of children living below the UK poverty line miss out on Free School Meals mainly because their parents are in low-paid jobs which take them over the eligibility threshold, and The Food Foundation found that 32% of households in Wales need to spend over a quarter of their disposable income after housing costs to meet their food needs, a figure higher than any other UK nation.
By extending Free School Meals to more children, children living in poverty wouldn’t be left out, and family budgets wouldn’t be under such immense pressure.
As it stands, the Free School Meals can also act as a barrier to parents moving into employment – the universal aspect of this policy would allow parents to move into employment without the risk of losing entitlement to key additional support such as Free School Meals.
Stigma around Free School Meals and its effects would also be removed by viewing school meals as a basic entitlement for all children. Currently, 30% of children in Wales are living in poverty, with that percentage likely to rise due to the impact of Covid-19. Only 17% take up the current offer of free school meals.
Uptake of free school meals by those eligible for means-tested free school meals has been shown to increase when the offer is universal.
Child poverty rates in Wales are devastating, and the impact of Covid and Brexit are bound to push further families and children under the poverty line.
We need to be proactive in preventing this from happening, we need to take steps now to ensure no children in Wales go to school hungry.
Providing free school meals is one of the best ways of mitigating against the worst effects of a second wave of Tory austerity – which will hit the poorest hardest.
In its report in June this year, the Bevan Foundation found a number of shortcomings with the current free school meals system in Wales.
The value of the support they say is not sufficient to lift people out of poverty.
Figures from the Child Poverty Action Group show that over 70,000 children living below the UK poverty line in Wales are not currently eligible for free school meals.
When I asked the First Minister for support for this endeavour culminating in the extension of Free School Meals for all pupils, he said that he “absolutely share(s) the view that providing a meal for a child in school is more than just putting food in their stomachs; it is about the value that we place on that child, and the clear signal that we give to them about an investment that society makes in their future.”
So why then is his Government dropping the longstanding target to eradicate child poverty by this year? Even though figures from various pieces of research strongly suggest further rather than fewer measures are needed at this point?
Wales wrote the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into law almost a decade ago. Yet one of its more basic principles, that government must provide children with nutritious food, is not being honoured.
A Plaid Cymru Government would right this wrong and begin to implement free school meals for every school pupil, first by extending eligibility for all children whose families receive Universal Credit, and by publishing a clear timetable to deliver universal free school meals, phase by phase starting with universal infants’ free school meals.