Should poor children be allowed to eat?

Marcus Rashford is, in the eyes of many, a hero. How long could you last without food? Presumably not a whole summer, and that is what Rashford saved millions of children from this summer.

If a child is eligible for free school meals, they normally only get given them during term time, which seems odd given that a family does not suddenly gain more wealth just because it’s the summer holidays. In a normal year, this is shortsighted and dangerous, putting children at risk for not being born rich. This year, however, in keeping with the saying ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’, income of the poorest quintile has dropped around 4%, whereas the wealthy now hold more of the wealth than ever. What this means is that affording meals is simply just not possible for all. Whatever fantasy land the tories are living in where everyone can arrive at their dinner table every day to a hot meal is certainly not the same land millions of children are living in.

Free school meals have existed ever since 1879, when Manchester started giving out some free meals after school was made mandatory in the 1870s, leading to many poor children being forced to go in hungry. Following this, there were attempts at increasing free school meals in 1906 and 1921, but both times the decision was left in the hands of the local authorities who mostly chose not to do anything. However, this all changed in 1944 when the Butler Act created a massive shift in the education system. Free school meals were now available for children, with free milk later following in 1946. Until this point, provision of free school meals had been on an upward trajectory, with them gradually becoming more accessible, but then Thatcher happened. Before Thatcher was ‘The Iron Lady’, she was ‘Thatcher, the milk snatcher’, and this is because she ended the provision of free milk for many children in 1971. Thatcher’s early milk-snatching habits extended throughout her term as Prime Minister, with her cutting the number of eligible children in 1986. Despite this, the number of students claiming free school meals is now at 1.4 million, with a further 900,000 having applied over lockdown, potentially bringing that number to over 2 million.

Despite the obvious benefit of free school meals being that children don’t starve, it is apparent that some people in this country need more convincing about the benefit of free school meals being available. A 2013 report found that free school meals makes children less fussy about their food and creates a ‘leveling effect’ between classmates so that poorer pupils can be more equal to their peers. It also eases financial stress for parents and increases healthy eating. Better yet, free schools meals also increase attainment according to the report. Therefore, providing free school meals has a clearly positive impact. It makes no sense to not extend it to also cover eligible pupils during holidays. A family doesn’t suddenly get more money because it’s half term, and many of the benefits of free school meals aren’t even restricted to just the classroom.

Even ignoring empirical data, surely feeding poor children is just the right thing to do. How can the concept of a deserving and an undeserving poor possibly apply to children? Children haven’t even had a chance to do anything to make them undeserving. There’s absolutely no way of arguing that wealthy adults who are guilty of crimes are more deserving of a healthy diet than children, regardless of what horrible sin this hypothetical child has somehow managed to find time to commit in their short life.

Perhaps some think that the impact of free school meals is overstated, however research certainly shows that taking away free school meals is dangerous. Studies show that an unhealthy diet negatively impacts health and also attainment, meaning that if free school meals are not properly reaching the children who need them year-round, it will have lifelong effects on their long term health, and also employment prospects later on if the impact on their education is too grave. Further down the line, if children today aren’t getting propre food, it will have a permanent impact on cognitive ability, social development, and attainment, that will only deepen the class divide, as these poor children become victim to a government who thinks that it’s the parents’ fault for not selling the pearls that they supposedly all own. Another Conservative MP argued that providing free school meals increases dependency, as children are not supposed to be dependent and starving a child is better than showing them that their government cares enough to feed them.

Whether or not children deserve to eat shouldn’t be a debate. Children, and also adults, need food in order to function, and not providing it only punishes them for being born into a poor family. Through no fault on the part of the children, millions have been condemned by The Conservatives to go hungry at a time when more families than ever are in a fragile position and a free lunch may be the only proper meal some children get in a day. Any argument against free school meals seems to pale when faced with the reality that despite any neoliberal ideological ideas about free school meals creating a dependency culture, surely we are better off with dependent children than dead children.

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