Many young people will be excited about returning to school this week. School is the single biggest opportunity we have to make sure every single child, every day, gets a good nutritious meal. However, lunchtimes at school are also the time when children feel the full punch of social inequalities. Access to free school meals elevates that stress for hundreds of thousands of pupils. Today, Sam Smith, a youth activist at Bite Back, shares why government action is vital for children in the UK, including here in Sheffield.
Why school meals are part of our future and what you can do to help young people in Sheffield
I should say, straight away, that I am not writing this article for myself. Despite my own story, I am writing this for the children and young people who I know need free school meals right now. I personally understand the impact and importance free school meals can have. As someone who was on free school meals up until the beginning of sixth form, I am lucky enough to say that I never had to worry that my parents’ financial situation would mean I couldn’t eat. But having had the opportunity to live both worlds – on and off free school meals, I can say that the difference is staggering. In an interview with Channel 4 last year, I said that I had only just begun to have a feeling I had never felt before, an “acidic rumble.” It is easy to take free school meals for granted, as I well learnt, but now I understand that free school meals are not just a lifeline, they are everything. If you have to travel long distances to get to school like I do, you’ll know that travelling on an empty stomach just prolongs the aching feeling further. Sitting in class ready to learn means that everything you think about reminds you more of that empty feeling, and since there is no way to combat it, putting your head on the table and shutting off can often seem the only solution. Except, it isn’t, because it leads to teachers thinking you’re not paying attention. Free school meals stop the pain of an empty stomach and support our right to learn.
Now it’s your turn!
The Government has the power to act for children everywhere. That’s why we are calling on the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, to extend free school meal support to all primary and secondary school children who need it. School is a place to learn and be comfortable, yet increasingly, it is a place where more and more children need support. There are reports of children up and down the country feeling distracted by their empty stomachs that grumble and groan and force them to shut down to avoid the aching feeling of having had nothing to eat all day.
Despite this, despite all the evidence presented to the government, there is nothing but inaction from the Secretary of State for Education. It is morally wrong to deny children and young people to a basic human right: access to nourishing food. It is also economically wrong, considering that for every £1 the government allocates to free school meals they – and we, as a society – get £1.38 back.
So I am calling on you, anyone and everyone, to put pressure on the government by joining me to send an email to Gillian Keegan.
We need the support of Sheffield’s Mayor, Oliver Coppard, too so please write to him on Twitter @olivercoppard or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will not stop fighting for the hundreds of thousands of young people who need our help until they finally receive the support that they deserve, nay, the support that they need.
Who are We
Bite Back is a youth activist movement that challenges a food system that’s currently set up to fail us. It puts profits before health and it manipulates young people using a flood of junk and fast food advertising. In England, more than 900,000 young people living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals. This is because the government’s overly stringent eligibility criteria prevents those who need support the most from accessing it.
The Good News
Recently, there has been some really encouraging news. This week, all primary school children in London will benefit from having a nutritious lunch to help them thrive. The Mayor of London has announced that almost 300,000 children will no longer have to worry about how they will eat during the school day.
While this is really welcome news, it doesn’t go far enough. I celebrate the news for primary school children in London, and I’m grateful that our campaign actions so far have been noticed, but there are many primary and secondary school children across the rest of the country, including in Sheffield, who are missing out.
How can government action make a difference?
Extending free school meals is a no brainer. They are an investment in children’s future, our economy and our country. They boost school attendance and the physical and mental health of children. The majority of MPs agree with us too. In a poll last year by YouGov, two-thirds of MPs supported immediately extending free school meals to all families that receive universal credit. The question, then, is why won’t the government act to protect children and young people, and ensure that all who need it have access to nutritious food at school?
Bite Back have written this article in collaboration with ShefFood.
ShefFood’s recently published Local Food Action Plan celebrates recent progress on increasing Free School Meal uptake in Sheffield- all children who are currently eligible for Free School Meals are now automatically enrolled in the scheme without having to apply. While this is fantastic news, Sam’s story shows that more action is needed at a national level, which is why ShefFood is endorsing Bite Back’s campaign.