The hastily scrapped Conservative election manifesto proposal to abolish free school lunches in favor of school breakfasts has raised debate over the benefits of each of these services.
This discussion was raised at the recent Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum Keynote Seminar on 'Food in Schools and Early Years Settings: Standards, Free School Meals and the Future for Policy'. Daniel Martin, from the Education Directorate of the Welsh Government, talked about the Welsh approach, which provided breakfasts rather than lunches to school children. "It's open to any child who requests a breakfast, irrespective of their qualification for free school meals," he said.
Martin claimed that research on Year 2 children suggested those on a free breakfast scheme made an additional two months of progress across reading, writing and maths, compared with a control group of pupils who did not have a school breakfast. Christine Farquharson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies largely supported this claim, showing comparitive studies on the impact of both free school lunches and school breakfasts. These studies showed a much higher impact on Key Stage 1 (ages 5-7) attainment for children taking breakfasts over lunches. There was, however, less of a difference at Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11).
Neither meal was shown to have a direct impact on the health or weight of the children, although this was mainly due to the difficulty in determining what children ate outside of school. But, Farquharson added that breakfast clubs did show significant impacts on school absences, and on the childrens' behaviour. These effects were not reported among free infant school lunch children, however.
Patricia Mucavele of the Children's Food Trust (CFT) told the forum: "We need to build on our successes in transforming food in education settings, using lessons learned to inform the improvement of the out-of-home offer for children and their families." She called for a government investment in a long-term vision, presenting a CFT wishlist of actions that included getting more children and families cooking, clearer food labelling, and encouraging Early Years Settings (EYS) to adopt the nutrition guidelines.
A number of presentations called for child-oriented food in shcools, supermarkets and outside the home to be healthier, with a particular focus on reducing salt, fat and sugar content. Mucavele said: "We need to make healthy food choices the easiest choice for children and make healthy eating a social norm."