Why free school meals in Labour-Plaid deal are an investment not a cost
Dr Victoria Winckler, Director of the Bevan Foundation
Labour and Plaid Cymru’s pledge to provide a free meal to all primary school children in Wales is an incredibly bold and positive step.
In providing a hot, healthy lunch to every child, irrespective of their parents’ income, it goes much further than many campaigners’ wildest dreams.
At a stroke it includes children from low-income families who previously missed out on a free meal because their parents are working.
It gets rid of dinner money debt and scraps the stigma associated with getting a free lunch. And if that is not enough, it means that children get a healthy, hot meal at a formative stage in their development.
Unfortunately, there are already mutterings about the cost of the commitment, not only in terms of extra meals but also to equip kitchens and so on. But rather than questioning the cost, we should regard the free meal pledge as an investment.
The Bevan Foundation estimated that the cost of universal free meals for primary children would be approximately £86 million a year extra. It sounds a lot – but it is less than the Welsh Government is spending on a ‘cultural recovery fund’ and about the same cost as a new further education campus in one town about which there has been very little comment.
And yes, there will also be some capital costs for kitchens and canteens. But these should not be overstated. Most children already have a meal at school even if it is packed lunch, and we can only hope that they are already eating it in a canteen. Extra capacity can be created be achieved by arranging several lunch sittings rather than extending buildings while extra dishwashers or ovens may be needed but are not astronomical in price.
Both capital and revenue costs are modest compared with the benefits to children. Around 35 per cent of children are obese, with obese children being more likely to become obese adults with all the health risks that brings. A third of children have decayed teeth, risking pain, infection and even stunted growth.
Cash invested in a healthy meal today not only means full bellies in the afternoon, but it could save millions in dealing with diabetes, heart disease and dental extractions in the future.
Good health is not the only potential win – there are also gains for the local economy. The £86 million extra being spent on free meals could be used to support local food suppliers. It’s a great new market for Welsh lamb and beef, cheese and milk, as well as fruit and veg producers.
And if that is not enough, school kitchens could expand to provide meals for other people in the community too. In Scotland, some schools in rural areas are not only catering for children but are also supplying local care homes and day centres.
By investing in school meals the Welsh Government is creating a substantial new market that – if harnessed effectively – could support the local economy.
The decision to provide free school meals for all primary school children is probably one of the best Welsh Government decisions I have heard in a very long time. It should be welcomed and supported.
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