Is money really the only barrier to expanding our free school meal programme? Sioned Williams MS, Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for Social Justice and Equalities explores this contentious issue.

This article was published in Nation Cymru on 16 July 2021

“It is unacceptable in a modern society that children still go hungry.” Not my words, but the words of the last Welsh Government, as recently as February of this year.

So why is it that once again we’re talking about children in Wales who are missing out on free school meals, but who really need them?

It’s not because the problem has gone away. Back in October of last year, the Child Poverty Action Group found that over half of children in Wales who live below the UK poverty line are not entitled to free school meals – that’s over 70,000 children.

The eligibility criteria that excludes them has not been changed, so this is why the same calls are being repeated again, and seemingly again. This time it’s the Wales Anti-Poverty Coalition that is calling on the new Welsh Government to prioritise the expansion of the free school programme. Their call is backed up by a letter signed by ten anti-poverty organisations.

So here we are again, calling on Welsh Government to listen to these calls and amend the eligibility criteria for free school meals so that all school pupils in families receiving universal credit or equivalent benefit are eligible. We’re bringing a(-nother) debate to the Senedd on Wednesday 14 July, hoping that the new Government will heed our calls this time.

What’s stopping the Welsh Government feeding hungry children?

The Wales Anti-Poverty Coalition talks about barriers to amending the eligibility criteria, and barriers to expanding it so that all children are included. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in both scenarios, the main barrier they identify is cost.

Indeed, when Plaid Cymru has previously brought this up with the Welsh Government, cost was the reason given why this is not being done. It’s not that they don’t think it’s worthwhile – indeed, their own review into child poverty found that “while the Free Breakfast Scheme is welcomed, and evidence shows the strong link between eating a healthy breakfast and educational attainment, there are concerns that many children in need aren’t benefitting from this scheme.”

There are a couple of different figures being quoted. The Wales Anti-Poverty Coalition estimates an additional £10.5m annually. The Welsh Government’s own calculations look at the cost if every household in receipt of Universal Credit receives free school meals – depending on the number of children in the households, this could be between £33m - £101m. Presumably a proportion of these households already receive free school meals, and so it should be noted that the Welsh Government calculation isn’t in addition.

Either way, compared to the total revenue budget, £10.5m represents a mere 0.06 per cent. For argument’s sake, even if every child received a free school meal, the cost would be £140.7m – that’s still less than 1 per cent of the Welsh Government’s total revenue budget.

But this is more than for argument’s sake. This is feeding children who might otherwise be hungry. This is about minimising the cruel effects of poverty, helping address economic equality, and improving the health and wellbeing of pupils.

Children that go hungry are far more likely to suffer from anxiety and severe stress and there are proven links between hunger in early life, depression, and suicidal episodes, as well as the likelihood of developing chronic illnesses such as asthma.

Crucially, for proper brain growth in children, they must be provided with specific nutritional requirements. These include foods that contain zinc, vitamin D, iron, selenium, protein and iodine, among other key nutrients. Ensuring our children receive these nutrients through universal access to nutritious meals will therefore also ensure the wellbeing of future generations, preventing serious illnesses and chronic conditions, as well as ensuring healthy brain development.

An upfront cost now could improve the health of many children, and reduce the impact on our health service later down the line.

This is also about improving educational attainment and productivity, and thereby improving the prospects of children and young people. After all, how can a learner concentrate at school if they are hungry?

If we want children and young people to thrive in education, and to grow up to be healthy adults, they need nutritious food - it’s literally as simple as that. So what’s stopping the Welsh Government?