Last year, a study from the End Child Poverty Coalition found that nearly half the children in Luton were growing up in poverty. For too long, economic policy has been detached from the lived reality of working-class people in places like Luton. Like many former industrial towns, our town has been left battered and bruised by devastating austerity cuts to public services and a chronic lack of investment. We’ve seen our youth centres, libraries, and community centres close down. For many young people, things are incredibly bleak.
In Luton, we know too well that we can’t wait for the government to enact change—we’ve got to do it for ourselves. That’s why, through Luton Tribune Club, we’ve been organising to build an alternative.
The government currently pays for universal infant free school meals (UIFSM), which means all children in Reception to Year Two are eligible for a free lunch. But the success of this policy and the cost of living crisis has only strengthened the case for this to be extended to all primary school children
This is why In Luton, local campaigners are saying enough is enough: we believe it is time for local government to do more. Ahead of our council elections in May this year, we called on all candidates to sign up to five pledges to transform our town. One of these pledges was to tackle food poverty and commit to free school meals for all primary-age children. 80 percent of elected councillors signed the pledges, but in order for these to become a reality, we knew that we needed to maintain pressure on our council.
The proposal around universal free school meals sparked a great deal of debate and discussion, with some councillors arguing that it wasn’t achievable without additional funding from central government. With both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer refusing to support an extended free school meals policy, we knew we couldn’t rely on the backing of senior politicians and would have to build an effective local campaign instead.
With this in mind, Luton Tribune Club set out to prove to councillors why they can and must extend universal free school meals provision. This took the form of a public event during the National Education Union’s [NEU] Week of Action for its Free School Meals for All campaign, where we invited local councillors to hear us make the case for free school meals expansion. This included our findings from a survey we conducted of Luton residents with primary-age children that had over 200 respondents, with 87 percent reporting they had faced issues in providing meals for their children and an overwhelming 97 percent saying they would support the expansion of school meals to all primary-age children.
Even before Sadiq Khan’s recent announcement that funding would be given to extend free school meals to all primary-age children in London for a one-year pilot, there were five London boroughs that had already expanded their programmes, starting with Newham in 2011. Currently, there is an administrative burden on parents needing to register for free school meals, and with the income threshold for eligibility sitting at £7,400, it should come as no surprise that there will be families who are missing out on this much-needed financial relief, which could save a family with two children as much as £450 a year.
Those who work in schools are already all too aware of the scale of child hunger. One study found that 83 percent of primary school teachers said children were coming to school hungry. Dave Mingay, a Luton primary school teacher and a NEU National Executive member, has seen firsthand how free school meals expansion could benefit families. ‘Providing free school meals for all children is a great leveller—it means you know that every child will get a healthy nutritious meal every day, regardless of income.’
At our free school meals event, local resident and Luton Tribune Club member Kirsty made a moving address to councillors about her daughter not having access to the same choice of meals as her schoolmates who pay for lunches, warning that ‘this sort of situation is going to increase class separation and discrimination.’ She also highlighted the injustice of children going hungry because their parents are struggling to make ends meet. ‘This is wrong. Children should not feel the pressure of financial hardships that their parents may be going through.’
We estimate that in Luton, the cost of expanding free school meals provision would be approximately £5 million a year. While we recognise the funding constraints faced by Luton Council, which states there have been upwards of £113 million of cuts to their budget since 2011/12, it is no secret that Luton recently overspent by nearly £70 million on the Luton DART, a new high-speed train for Luton Airport. If money can be found to squander on infrastructure projects, surely money can be found to tackle child hunger.
We are also calling for the council to move beyond the current neoliberal income generation framework and help them to learn from councils like Preston, whose model of community wealth building and changes to its procurement has helped to ensure that the town feels the benefits of local economic activity.
The battle for universal free school meals in Luton is far from won, and objections from a handful of councillors remain. Yet already, we have ensured that this policy has become a serious topic of conversation at the council. Councillor Rob Roche, who supports the campaign, spoke at our public meeting and said that there is the possibility that this policy could be rolled out by the start of the 2024 school year. We will need to continue to engage residents, local organisations and councillors to make this a reality. By working at a grassroots level, we are empowering our community so that we are the ones to shape the future of our town and its children.