Eat for Free scheme removes stigma around free school meals

MP Stephen Timms says the support from groups during the pandemic has been crucial.

MP Stephen Timms is delighted Newham Council has extended its 'Eat for Free' scheme - Credit: Parliament

Newham Council faces extraordinary challenges. After a decade of central government cuts it now faces all the additional costs of the Covid-19 pandemic.

So I was delighted that, last month, Newham Council chose to extend its pioneering Eat for Free scheme, providing free school meals for all primary children.

Ben Levinson, headteacher of Kensington - Primary School of the Year 2020 - told the Work and Pensions Select Committee in Parliament recently that the scheme is “lifechanging for our communities”.

It removes stigma around free school meals, and distinctions between children. It is especially valuable for families who do not meet normal free school meal criteria.

Child Poverty Action Group estimated that, before the pandemic, 40per cent of children in poverty were not eligible for free school meals. The criteria also normally exclude families with no recourse to public funds.

Newham’s scheme delivers easy access for all to a healthy, nutritious lunch, with 90pc of the borough’s children taking the offer up. It helps them learn throughout the day, boosting their long-term health and their educational development. And it's very popular.

The decision to retain the scheme has come at a crucial time. It is needed now more than ever, when the pandemic is causing such hardship. We have all seen Marcus Rashford make the case so powerfully for free school meals, taking much of the country with him.

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Juniper Ventures supplies almost 75pc of Newham primary schools and is the fifth largest employer in the borough. As unemployment surges, those local jobs are vital for our community.

I am proud that Newham will continue to set an example of excellence. The council is putting the health, wellbeing, and life chances of our children first. They are showing what kind of borough we are and who we want to be.