Hungry children cannot learn – and Wales has a plan to tackle this
Sioned Williams MS writes about our ground-breaking policy to feed all primary school children
This article was published in Nation Cymru 03/09/2022
“Something has to give and I just don’t think it should be the children’s spirits”
These were the words of a school dinner lady from Lancashire, from the Enough is Enough rally in Manchester, and shared by the popular news site PoliticsJOE. At the last count, the video the posted on Twitter had been viewed more than 4 million times.
In the video, she talks about the heartache of “spending as much time taking the food away from children as I do serving it” due to children not having sufficient credit on their school dinner account. With the rising cost of living, and the situation expected to be worse this new school year, she actually says she’s dreading going back after the summer – and she’s unlikely to be the only one.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Here in Wales, we’re about to do something incredible, thanks to Plaid Cymru’s influence on government policy. From this month, free meals will be rolled out across all primary schools in Wales, starting with reception classes, as part of the Co-operation Agreement between Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru.
Wales won’t be putting its school dinner serving staff in the position of having to turn anyone away, because soon, all primary school children will be eligible for a free meal.
In the middle of a cost of living crisis, with energy bills rocketing up again in October, and no-one being quite sure what cash will be left over after all the bills have gone out, this is going to be life-saving – literally – for many households in Wales.
It was a key election pledge for us, and an issue we’d raised time and time again in the Senedd. We then held this policy as a priority when developing the Co-operation Agreement, and thanks to a spirit of collaboration, it is now being put into action.
Even when we made the pledge in our Senedd manifesto, at the start of 2021, the Child Poverty Action Group had shown that 70,000 children who lived below the poverty line were missing out on free school meals because of the way the eligibility criteria was set.
If we knew it was important back in 2021, then you can be sure we realise how important it is now, in the face of the cost of living crisis. I can’t help but wonder about the difference it would make had had our calls, and those of other anti-poverty campaigners, been heeded earlier, and if these plans were already in place.
Even so, it’s still incredible to me that Wales is the only nation in the UK to commit to universal free school meals for all primary school children. Of that, we can be immensely proud. Our heartfelt thanks go to those working within local authorities across Wales - catering staff, those making deliveries and coordinating the roll-out - in recognising how important it is that we get this right for our children.
While the Westminster establishment fails to tackle the cost of living crisis, Wales is leading the way and doing what we can to support families.
The policy also commits to using locally-sourced produce where possible, supporting local businesses and supply chains, and thereby helping to safeguard jobs.
This isn’t just about making society fairer by raising up those who are struggling most to afford even food, it’s about finding ways to support our producers, all of which helps to build our nation.
And in ensuring that no child has to go hungry during the school day, we are giving our children the best start in life, because hungry children cannot learn.
However, we have always said that we see the introduction of free school meals for primary school children as a first step. To us, it isn’t a matter of if this should happen, but when. I’m proud that it’s a Plaid Cymru council that’s already starting the to work to assess what would be required to deliver free meals to a higher number of secondary school pupils.
In the meantime, our free school meals policy in our primary schools will make a real difference to so many children ahead of what will be a very difficult winter for many families, and will give them a good start for the rest of their lives. This is something of which I’m immensely proud to be part.