Youth representatives in Parliament call for more and healthier school meals

6 March 2024
The Youth Select Committee heard evidence regarding young people’s experiences of the cost-of-living crisis. Its report has been published, calling for free school meals to be expanded and improved.

The report of the Youth Select Committee, published today, looks at how the cost-of-living crisis has been affecting various elements of young people’s lives. Its first chapter is all about food, and it goes on to discuss education, employment, and mental health, amongst other things.

Access to nutritious food has decreased, exacerbating health disparities among young people and their families, particularly those with limited financial resources. The soaring cost of healthier food options, which are often twice as expensive per calorie compared with unhealthier alternatives, forces young people and their families to make unhealthy choices and can result in long-term health consequences.

- The impact of the cost of living crisis on young people, Youth Select Committee 2024

The report makes clear the level of need across the country. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated there were one million destitute children in the UK in 2022. Our friends at Child Poverty Action Group estimate that one in three (900,000) children living in poverty in England is ineligible for a free school meal due to the draconian eligibility criteria. These figures support the Committee’s recognition that “young people are having to have fears and worries they shouldn’t have to have, like if they will have food that day or not.”

Our Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer, Sean Turner, gave evidence to the committee, and pointed out the unfairness of the postcode lottery. Children’s access to good nutrition is currently far too dependent on where they grow up. This is borne out in data showing those in the poorest communities are twice as likely as those in the wealthiest to develop food-related ill health.

Young people are having to have fears and worries they shouldn’t have to have, like if they will have food that day or not.

- Cheshire East Youth Council written submission to the committee

The Committee recommends that the eligibility criteria for free school meals are extended to ensure all of the 900,000 children in poverty who are currently missing out can access this nutritional safety net. This could be done immediately by the government, and would be a welcome first step towards investing in great school food for all young people, no matter where they grow up.

The Committee has our full support for its other recommendations, including that:

  • Funding for school food should be protected so it is all spent on ensuring great food
  • School food standards should be updated to reflect the latest research on food and health
  • The government should provide an update on progress with its 2020 “Tackling Obesity” policy paper
  • Junk food advertising restrictions should be fully implemented without delay

As we heard in today’s Budget, the current government is not planning to invest in the next generation. We urge them, and any future government, to consider this report, hear the voices of young people, and ensure they have all they need to thrive. A great place to start would be with the report’s opening chapter: ‘access to affordable and nutritious food’.

You can find the report here.