27 June 2023, The Tablet

Bishop joins calls to extend free school meals provision

Bishop joins calls to extend free school meals provision

Actress and Barnardo's Ambassador Michelle Collins hands in petition to 10 Downing Street demanding free school meals for all primary school children in the UK.
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy

Life is getting harder for families with many parents who were just about managing to cope, now struggling, a senior bishops has said. Extending provision of free school meals could help many more children to thrive, said Bishop of Salford John Arnold. 
“Life is getting harder for the families we support in Salford and I know that hunger in the classroom is a concern shared by colleagues across the UK. Action by the Government to extend Free School Meals to all primary school children would help many more children to thrive.” 
Bishop Arnold is among those backing the National Education Union’s No Child Left Behind campaign, which has designated this week a “week of action” callimg for the extension of free school meals to all children in primary schools in England.
Across the country, a coalition of more than 240 organisations and civil society leaders are taking part, including faith groups, charities, trade unions, councils and public health bodies.
The week opened on 23 June with a national call to prayer and reflection by Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu faith leaders aimed at drawing attention to rising levels of hunger in our schools and their impact on children. 
Bishop Arnold told The Tablet, “Low wages, high prices and unaffordable energy bills mean parents who were coping before are now really struggling. Support from the Government to extend free school meals to all primary school children would make all the difference for some families. The hundreds of pounds saved on lunch, per child, by free school meals, will put money back in parents’ pockets each year. That is money parents can use to pay for other essentials for their children, from heating and food at home to hobbies and after-school clubs. The provision of free school meals provides energy for learning.
“We already offer free school meals for our youngest children. For the first three years of school, every child in England gets a hot school dinner — and no child under seven wants for food while they are at school. But from year three onwards, this stops and this campaign is about extending that provision, so that every child have the chance to thrive and eat a hot dinner with their friends together.
“Catholics, through the Church’s social teaching, have a vision that every child can grow, live and learn free from poverty. But we need action from our elected representatives to help make this a reality.”
Government support in England lags behind Scotland and Wales. In 2020, Scotland pledged to provide free healthy dinners for all children in primary school. In 2021, Wales promised children the same. In England, there is no such pledge.

Currently, free school meals are universal for the first three years of school. From year three on, strict eligibility criteria based on a family’s income mean that millions of children go short. Congregations are being asked to write to their MPs to support extending free school meals to all primary school children.

An open letter will be handed into Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday 29 June, signed by 36 faith leaders including Anglican and Catholic Bishops, the leaders of three Jewish movements, the Muslim Council of Britain, Hindu Council UK and Baron Singh of Wimbledon on behalf of the  Network Of Sikh Organisations.

Rabbi Charley Baginsky and Rabbi Josh Levy, of Liberal and Reform Judaism said: “All religions must be a voice to defend children who experience poverty. This is about compassion for the human experience – and an understanding of the role of social living on the individual which is so much at the heart of who we are.
With hunger in the classroom rising, the burden cannot be met by hard-pressed schools, faith and charitable organisations already struggling to cope. We need a fresh vision for our country and from our Government. We stand firmly behind this call for Free School Meals for all primary school children.”

Abdul Qayum, Head Imam and Khateeb, East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre said: “No children should go hungry. It damages their growth and ability to learn. Hunger can also result in anxiety and stress that can trigger mental-health issues. This campaign for free school meals for all primary school children will help parents and guardians who are feeling the financial strain due to the current economic crises that the UK and the rest of the world is facing.”

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