From Latin America to Japan, universal free school meals improve children's lives. It's time for the UK to follow suitby Swati Narayan / June 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
Every school day, India feeds 100 million children. This school lunch system is not only the largest in the world but also provides meals completely free.
Before the recent General Election in the United Kingdom, the Conservative manifesto fruitlessly set out to axe universal free school meals for infants—a move that would have affected over 900,000 children. By the time of the Queen’s Speech, the plan had been dropped.
Labour’s manifesto, meanwhile, committed to extending lunches to feed every primary school child. This begs the question: if India can fund a £1.5bn school lunch program from her coffers, surely Britain—as the fifth-richest country in the world—can also afford to feed all her children?
A global phenomenon
Nearly every developed country provides some form of school lunches. Finland and Sweden ensure that they are free for all children from the age of six. Many middle-income countries, like India, additionally protect the right of every child to be free from classroom hunger in law—ensuring that future governments do not downsize school meals and maintain nutrition standards.
But Latin America is by far the most progressive. In Brazil, Honduras, Bolivia, Paraguay, El Salvador, Cuba and Ecuador, universal meals are even served in pre-schools. Across Latin America, school meals have contributed to reducing stunted growth in children by 56 percent in the past 25 years.
Yet school meals are not only about food. Young children also learn to share a meal, socialise and develop eating habits at a crucial age. In Japanese schools, children even distribute the food themselves, clean up afterwards, and learn to reduce food waste and recycle. School meals also have a multiplier footprint on the local economy. They ensure regular demand for farmers and suppliers, employment—there are 80,000 dinner ladies in the UK—and savings for struggling families.
Unfortunately, school lunches are becoming increasingly embroiled in politics. Recently Donald Trump cut back on school meal nutrition standards, set by Barack Obama. Theresa May wants free lunches off the table, even though Jeremy Corbyn has a concrete plan to feed every primary school child.
Why free lunches should be universal
Of course, some argue, as the Tory manifesto did, that it is not necessary to subsidise all children, but only the poor. Yet across America, for example, targeted poor children increasingly face the stigma of ‘lunch shaming’. A child can apparently have their lunch taken away if their family has overdue payments…