Should we all be paying for every young child to have a hot, healthy meal a day?
Many people answering that would say it’s a parent’s responsibility to feed their children and the state should only step in and offer support where parents are unable to do that.
It’s an issue I’ve been thinking about with the debate over who gets free school meals reaching Parliament last week.
We had all sorts of statistics banded about - one set of politicians tell us thousands more children will get free school meals, another set said thousands will miss out.
Currently, children are able to have a free school meal five days a week if they are in Reception class and Years 1 and 2 – so aged four to seven.
From Year 3 onwards, parents have to apply for a free school meal if they are on income support, universal credit or a number of other benefits.
But as the government looks to roll out Universal Credit - a new system of claiming benefits - future children who will have been eligible for free schools meals under existing rules won’t be under the new rules.
The new rules state that if you’re on Universal Credit and earn £7,400 from work, your children will no longer be entitled to free school meals - if they’re in Year 3 or above.
Ok, it’s not free - we’re all paying for it via tax, but it means parents don’t have to fork out at the point of purchase for it.
I think this new system is unnecessarily messy. Just think about the admin of working out who earns 1p over the £7,400 threshold.
The rules, as they were, means classmates sit down and dine together from a young age, possibly with their teachers, and not a single child is left out. They learn valuable social skills.
But it goes beyond that.
As the daughter of a now retired dinner lady, my mum often told me she’d dish up extra helpings to some children, knowing a school dinner would be that child’s only hot meal that day.
It shouldn’t be at the discretion of a dinner lady making a guess about a child’s home-life that means one has a decent meal, but it often was.
But there’s a more important aim we need to tackle: obesity.
Earlier this year it was revealed that one in five children arriving in primary school are already obese or overweight. And we adults don’t escape as 60% of us are too heavy.
The cost to the NHS is about £4.5bn - plus obesity may cost over £4bn in future social care costs.
If we as a nation can give every child a healthy meal a day and they become healthier, the more-expensive cost to the NHS should reduce.
It’s a win, win situation.
Plus a healthier nation is a more productive nation.
Us parents are doing something wrong if one in five children is overweight by the age of five.
If we are filling lunchboxes with sandwiches stuffed with processed cheese, crisps and biscuits then we are not going to improve our child’s health.
And for those of you who put fruit in, do you know your child eats it?
My mum said at her school the school hall bin would be filled with empty crisp packets and uneaten fruit. She could do little about it from behind the serving counter.
If every child was offered the same, healthy meal they’d eat it.
Treats such as biscuits and crisps would be reserved as a ‘treat’ not a daily snack.
In providing free school meals we give all children a healthy start, we provide jobs in school kitchens, and it should, in the long run, improve children’s health and reduce the cost to the NHS.