Menu Close

The Free School Meals Showdown Isn’t Just About Food

UK diners feasted on more than 100 million discount meals in August as part of the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme. The Treasury reports that restaurants have already claimed more than £522 million from the UK taxpayer as a result. Less than three months later, the government rejected a Labour motion to extend a programme providing disadvantaged children with free school meals into the holidays. The plan would have cost taxpayers an estimated £150 million.

The prime minister has since defended the decision, arguing that planned increases to Universal Credit meant there was no need for extra funding. “I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger,” he said. “The debate is, ‘How do you deal with it?’”

Following the vote in Parliament, Marcus Rashford’s petition calling for an end to child food poverty surpassed the one million signatures mark. He says, “We have proved that even when we have little, we still have something to give,” Yet, despite the coverage these events have received, there are still many who support the government. One poll of more than 9,000 Express readers found that 78% think the prime minister should stick to his guns.


What is poverty?                                                                     

This raises questions about perceptions of food poverty in the UK. What is poverty, how is it calculated, what measures have been taken to combat it and what role should the state play? The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) discusses the definition of poverty, stating that there is a difference between ‘absolute poverty’ and ‘relative poverty’. ‘Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack resources to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong.’

This is a definition of relative poverty: whether or not a child has access to the same activities and living conditions as the average family. CPAG says that poverty can include a child who, ‘…does have three meals a day, warm clothes and goes to school, but is unable to go on the same school trips as her classmates.’

Conversely, the World Bank defines the ‘global poverty line’ as follows:

  • $1.91 per person per day — in 33 low-income countries
  • $3.21 per person per day — in 32 lower-middle-income countries, such as India and the Philippines
  • $5.48 per person per day — in 32 upper-middle-income countries, such as Brazil and South Africa
  • $21.70 per person per day — in 29 high-income countries

In a country where no child lives under the global poverty line and free school meals, school trips and other benefits are paid by taxpayers, this debate really does go to the heart of how the UK’s welfare state is structured and funded. Should a free schools meal voucher be a separate ringfenced benefit – or form part of Universal Credit, which was designed to simplify the welfare system by bringing all benefits under one catch-all payment?

In March 2020, the Government announced that the standard allowance in Universal Credit and the basic element in Tax Credit would both go up by £20 a week for one year specifically to boost incomes during a time when children may be off school due to COVID-19. This amounts to an extra £1,040 a year for all claimants. These measures have not, however, assuaged fears amongst campaigners.


Did the Government Score an Own Goal?

There is strong public sentiment in favour of free school meals out of school and naturally, opposition figures have denounced the 322 Conservative MPs who blocked the move. One particularly eye-catching comment came from former UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

He Tweeted: “If the government can subsidise Eat Out to Help Out, not being seen to give poor kids lunch in the school holidays looks mean and wrong.” A report from the Department of Education’s social mobility commission shows that 600,000 more children live in poverty today than in 2012; whilst YouGov research says 14% of adults living with children reported experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity in the last six months.

The Guardian reports that funding £15-a-week food vouchers for the 1.4 million children registered to receive free school meals would cost about £21m a week – a little over £1 billion over the course of a year. That would be on top of the £210 billion that the government has already spent during the course of the pandemic (debt that is being accumulated from global markets). For some, this is a drop in the ocean during a time of national crisis. For others, it is a step too far.

To millions of course, the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford is a knight in shining armour – his football club reports that the 22-year-old has helped to raise almost £20 million for this cause in recent weeks. “I thought, ‘If there’s a way to try and help people, and kids especially, let’s just try and do that,” Rashford said on the team’s podcast. “We don’t know how long this is going to go on for,” he added. “If this would have happened 10 or 15 years ago, it definitely would have affected myself as a kid in the position I was in.”

The good will of charities, not-for-profits and rich celebrities have always played a significant part in helping the poor and dispossessed in the UK – we should be proud of this. The third sector – and government foreign aid – is also a lifeline for billions of people in abject poverty around the world. In some of the least developed countries like Sudan, the average monthly income is $49. 14.6 million people live below the global poverty line in Sudan. We are all rich in comparison.


Many of us have benefitted from free school meals – they ensure that children from poor backgrounds receive a hot and nutritious meal five times a week. The challenge for policymakers in a COVID-ravaged economy is to act to protect businesses, livelihoods, value chains, jobs, and standards of living all at the same time: an unenviable task and a balance to be struck that will fail to keep everybody happy. Whether he wins his fight to extend school meals to non-school environments or not, Rashford’s commitment to the cause is already making a huge difference to the lives of many poor children in the UK – we should all be proud.

Do You Have An Enquiry?

Get In Touch Or Fill Out Our Online Enquiry Form.