On Monday 24 May, days after it was revealed that Boris Johnson had ordered £27,000 in takeaways in just eight months, MPs debated child food poverty. The debate was in response to the petition launched by Marcus Rashford, which gained more than one million signatories, calling on the government to end child food poverty by implementing three recommendations from the National Food Strategy (NFS).
The NFS published part one of their report in July 2020, focusing on the impact of Covid-19 on the UK and the upcoming withdrawal from European Union, and making recommendations to tackle child food poverty and bring about food sovereignty. The recommendations include expanding eligibility for the Free School Meal (FSM) scheme, extending the Holiday Activity and Food Programme (HAFP) over the school summer holiday, and expanding eligibility and increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers.
Moving the motion, Catherine McKinnell, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North, recognised that the government had committed to increasing Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 a week, but raised concerns about the uptake of the scheme. Citing the lack of policy ownership over food insecurity often identified in the academic literature, she pointed out that the move to Universal Credit had stopped local authorities promoting the scheme to eligible families (under the previous system, LAs could see who received benefits and promote the scheme to them, but they don’t receive information about UC claimants).
Tory MP Tom Hunt began his contribution to the debate by hitting back at the idea that action was being taken on child food poverty as a result of Marcus Rashford’s interventions. While clarifying that the government has committed to expanding the HAFP, Hunt claimed that food insecurity is not a ‘political choice’ and that suggesting so was engaging in the ‘politics of the playground’. The Tories are desperate to depoliticise the debate around food insecurity which sits uncomfortably with the abundance of evidence that austerity policies have increased food insecurity.
The important takeaway from the debate was that the government has refused to commit to the NFS recommendation to increase eligibility for Free School Meals. As someone who was reliant on Free School Meals as a child—who at the age of ten had to confront the reality of not having enough money for food—I find this debate infuriating. In a country where 14 percent of families with children have experienced food insecurity, this can only be seen as a naked ideological choice.
Food insecurity has been increasing year on year, fuelled partly by rising energy prices and stagnating wages. Last year the Trussell Trust distributed 980,000 emergency food parcels to children. As Catherine McKinnell said in the debate on Monday, ‘normalising food aid is not something we should aspire to’: reliance on food aid causes its own problems, with the stigmatising experience creating an ‘othering’ food system.
Stigma, too, is at the heart of child food poverty. Means-testing FSMs directly contributes to a gap in healthy food consumption and results in a lack of uptake, meaning eligible children go hungry. Children whose parents have no recourse to public funds are also not entitled to FSMs, worsening the educational attainment gap of migrant children because, as we know, hungry children do not learn well. It’s clear, then, that slightly increasing the eligibility of FSMs to some children is insufficient: we need universalised provision.
A Universal Alternative
In pilots across the country, Universal Free School Meals (UFSM) have been shown to improve learning and behaviour, and increase concentration and educational attainment. In a national government report into an UFSM pilot in 2013, researchers found significant positive outcomes from universal provision, writing not only that there were benefits for children who were not previously eligible but that there was also a ‘significant effect amongst those who were already entitled to (and receiving) FSMs’.
Universal Free School Meals are an achievable goal – one that is already commonplace in from Finland to India and across Latin America. The push for this change is already happening at a grassroots level: in Bristol, members of the community union ACORN recently selected key demands for mayoral candidates to commit to, among which was the call for UFSMs. Marvin Rees, newly re-elected Mayor of Bristol City Council, has said he will ‘look into’ replicating the successful pilots that have taken place across the country.
The common argument against UFSMs calls on the ideology of means testing: ‘Why should the state pay for middle-class kids to eat, if their parents can afford it?’ Let’s take this logic further. Why should the state pay for middle class kids to have desks, if their parents can afford it? Wouldn’t it be better if rich parents bought quality tables for their children to study at, while the state provided basic versions for those in need?
As socialists, we must fight against this narrative and the two-tiered system it creates. Universalism is a key tenet of socialist thought: we don’t aim to prop up the poor until they can become rich, we aim to build a society where everyone is guaranteed a secure and comfortable life. Means-tested services can be quietly rolled back, defunded, and made inaccessible behind mountains of paperwork. Compare the numbers who marched against the implementation of Universal Credit against those that come out to defend the NHS.
When we create public services which everyone uses and relies on, everyone has a shared interest in sustaining and building them. Free school meals for all (provided by an insourced service, not the cost-cutting companies which currently feed our children) would become an expected part of everyday life, like the National Health Service before it.
Food insecurity, and particularly child food poverty, is a political choice. We have the resources in this country to provide food for every person living here, but the government elects not to. Researchers and campaigners have been fighting for decades for the guaranteed right to food so that no one goes hungry, and while the National Food Strategy is a welcome intervention into the crippling problem of food insecurity in the UK, it does not go far enough: to consign child hunger to the history books, where it belongs, we have to think even bigger.