Exploring what's free about UIFSM

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

I was pleased to see that the daft pledge to means-test payments for infant school meals hasn't made it into the Queen's Speech.  Unsurprisingly, this was an unpersuasive proposition on the nation's doorsteps.  Voters recognised sweets being snatched away when they saw it.

The Soil Association's excellent Food for Life [FFL] programme (with which I am associated in a vanishingly minor way) wrote this:

Following the Queen’s Speech this morning (Wednesday 21 June 2017), we are delighted to hear that the pledge to discontinue Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) was not included in the announcement.  The removal of UIFSM quickly became the most unpopular pledge in the Conservative manifesto with parents, head teachers, and caterers all expressing their disappointment and disapproval, with our survey finding 80% of schools are ‘very concerned’ about the potential withdrawal.  Joanna Lewis, Strategy & Policy Director of the Soil Association, commented:

“The omission of  the pledge to discontinue UIFSM  from the Queens Speech is great news as we need Universal Infant Free School Meals now more than ever. An investment in school meals are an investment in child health – critical when one in five children is obese by the time they finish primary school. It is also an investment in educational attainment, a financially viable catering service, and a culture of healthy eating.  The Government must now commit to a rigorous long term evaluation of the health, educational, and social benefits resulting from the policy.  It must ensure that schools and caterers are supported to deliver high quality, healthy and sustainable meals.  All children deserve to be raised in an environment in which it is normal, easy and enjoyable to eat well - Universal Infant Free School Meals are an important step towards creating such an environment.”

Together, along with the great campaign led by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation and Leon, we have ensured the voices of schools were heard by Government. They have listened to our dismay at the potential discontinuation of the policy, which would have resulted in job losses, growing inequalities, and a return to the dark days of junk-filled packed lunches and social stigma attached to free school meals for the few.

And here are the children of Charlton Manor school and Washingborough Academy, celebrating.

I think that children should eat good food.  I also think that it would be good were parents and carers to take responsibility for providing this, but I understand why this isn't always possible.  Thus, for young children, there's a convincing argument for the school providing this through tax-payer funding, especially when quality can be assured through the admirable catering mark and FFL schemes.  This might be an argument for older children to get this as well, but that's for another day.

What I object to in all this is the use of the word "free".  None of this is free, just like, for example, the NHS is not free.  Somebody always pays; in fact, everybody pays something or other.  The NHS mantra is "free at the point of delivery" which at least makes the point (somewhat obliquely, mind you) that there are costs to be paid by someone, somewhen.  I'm writing all this because I wonder what children are being taught.  Are they being helped to understand that the costs haven't vanished, but, rather, have been socialised for good reasons, and so are being borne by everyone (including, of course, one way or another, by their parents and carers).  I hope so.  It's never too soon to learn some economics, and there are dangers in not doing so as you risk being in thrall to silver-tongued demagogues.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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