When the pandemic required the majority of schools to shut their doors in the spring of 2020, it laid bare some very unpleasant truths about the extent and depth of child poverty in Wales. It was immediately clear that, as well as offering children an education, schools are also part of the critical social infrastructure preventing widespread child hunger. Without the provision of a free cooked meal once a day, tens of thousands of children in Wales risked being left without enough to eat during the lockdown period.

In a nation where almost one in 3 children is growing up beneath the poverty line, any increase in the cost of living places unbearable pressure on family budgets. Cruel policies that deliberately withhold social security support from some children due to their birth order, coupled with the cumulative impact of a decade of austerity-related cuts to social security, mean that two-thirds of children and almost half of adults in Wales now have incomes that fail to meet the minimum income standard needed to enjoy a reasonable standard of living.

In the context of such widespread poverty, and without control over most aspects of social security, the Welsh Government has limited options when it comes to helping households manage the daily grind of poverty. Under the current devolution settlement, the Welsh Government is unable to create new benefits or top up the often pitiful rates of existing ones. It would seem it’s somewhat happy to be constrained here, given its reluctance to call for further devolution in this area – let alone independence. Without the necessary powers over social security, its strongest tool is investment in the ‘social wage‘ – subsidising or offsetting the everyday costs of living, so people are able to get by despite having little disposable income. In practice, this looks like everything from free prescriptions to free entry to museums, to the free bowl of cornflakes offered to children before they start their lessons each day.

Despite bold talk around ‘progressive universalism’, many parts of Welsh Labour’s social wage are actually means-tested, and often stringently so. This is most evident in the policy around access to free school meals. This week, new analysis by the Child Poverty Action Group has found that 42% of children in poverty in Wales don’t even qualify for free school meals.  While this fact is scandalous enough, further analysis of the situation in other nations shows that the Welsh Government actually excludes more children from getting free school meals than any other nation in the UK, including Tory England.

In part, this is because the Welsh Government has set a ridiculously low earned income threshold, which makes families ineligible for any help with the cost of school meals or other education-related expenses as soon as their income from work exceeds £7,400 a year. Needless to say, a family of four living on an earned income of £8000 a year is very far below the contemporary poverty line, even if they’re able to claim benefits and tax credits on top. Three quarters of families in poverty are in work, but unable to earn enough to achieve a reasonable standard of living. This means the majority of children in poverty are shut out from free school meals, and their schools receive no additional funding to help overcome the profound barriers that poverty places in the way of children fulfilling their educational potential.

But the real outrage is that Wales wouldn’t be at the bottom of the school dinner league table if it simply implemented a policy that already exists in England and Scotland, and which the Welsh Government receives consequential funding for. It is Wales’ failure to provide universal free meals to infant children that leads to significantly more children in poverty missing out on school dinners, compared to England and Scotland. If a 5 year old goes to school in Coventry or Cumbernauld, they will sit down alongside all their classmates and enjoy a free cooked meal every day. Meanwhile, in Caernarfon and Cardiff, parents and carers must shell out an average of £450 a year for their 5 year olds to eat at school.

In Wales, 80,000 Foundation Phase school children currently fail to benefit from the “universal” infant meals policy. Wales is alone among the nations of Britain in means-testing school meals for every child, regardless of their age. While Scotland and England recognise the substantial educational, health and economic benefits of providing universal infant meals, the Welsh Government chooses to means-test even the littlest children. As a result, the cost of eating at school is passed to the families of the 80% of Foundation Phase children who fall on the wrong side of the Welsh Government’s eligibility criteria.

Following a powerful campaign from a broad coalition of organisations, including charities, the People’s Assembly, trade unions and grassroots groups across Wales, the need to improve the reach of Wales’ free school meal system is now well established. In recent months, Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservatives and others have all repeatedly voted in favour of expanding eligibility to all children living in families receiving universal credit. The Welsh Government’s own internal review of its anti-poverty schemes recommended that the FSM eligibility threshold be raised, so more families are able to get help with the cost of food in school. Yet less attention has been paid to Wales’ missing infant meals, and the value of providing free cooked lunches to all young children, irrespective of their household income.

As long as school food is means-tested, some stigma will always remain, and some children in need will miss out. Only a universalist approach to food in schools can guarantee optimal health, educational, and anti-poverty outcomes. Simply raising the eligibility threshold kicks the can down the road. Whether the threshold is £8,000, £10,000 or £18,000, it  will still deter eligible people from applying, because the means-testing process is inherently humiliating, and much as we like to deny it, “FSM kids” are labelled, monitored and treated differently within our education system.

Undod believe the Welsh Government should live up to its warm words around universalism, and stop means-testing school dinners. We demand Welsh Government:

  • Immediately introduce universal free school meals for all children in the Foundation Phase, using the consequential funding they already receive to do this. This should be a nutritionally balanced lunchtime meal – the universal breakfast offer does not suffice.
  • Abolish means-testing of school meals altogether, ensuring all learners at every stage of compulsory education are able to access free meals at school.
  • Ensure all food in Welsh schools is procured in a sustainable way, guaranteeing that the ingredients used are produced to the highest environmental and ethical standards, while safeguarding the workers’ rights of everyone involved in supplying and serving the meals.

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Annwyl _____

Re. Free school meals in Welsh schools

I am writing to you to raise my concerns regarding the Welsh Government’s overly-stringent means-testing of free school meals.

It is deeply troubling that the Welsh Government fails to provide universal free lunches to infant children, leading to significantly more children in poverty missing out on school dinners, compared to England and Scotland.

As things currently stand, 5 year olds going to school in England and Scotland can sit down alongside all their classmates and enjoy a free cooked meal every day. Meanwhile, in Wales, parents and carers must shell out an average of £450 a year for their 5 year olds to eat at school.

Wales is alone among the nations of Britain in means-testing school meals for every child, regardless of their age. While Scotland and England recognise the substantial educational, health and economic benefits of providing universal infant meals, the Welsh Government chooses to means-test even the littlest children. As a result, the cost of eating at school is passed to the families of the 80% of Foundation Phase children who fall on the wrong side of the Welsh Government’s eligibility criteria.

With child poverty rates continuing to rise, and families with young children most at risk, it is time the Welsh Government started investing in universal support to help families across the country who are struggling to stay afloat. Our children deserve decent school food that fills them up, keeps them healthy and helps them learn and grow. No child should know the stigma and pain of being unable to eat alongside their friends because their family has less money.

I am asking you to call on the Welsh Government to:

  • Immediately introduce universal free school meals for all children in the Foundation Phase, using the consequential funding they already receive to do this. This should be a nutritionally balanced lunchtime meal – the universal breakfast offer does not suffice.
  • Abolish means-testing of school meals altogether, ensuring all learners at every stage of compulsory education are able to access free meals at school.
  • Ensure all food in Welsh schools is procured in a sustainable way, guaranteeing that the ingredients used are produced to the highest environmental and ethical standards, while safeguarding the workers’ rights of everyone involved in supplying and serving the meals.

Cofion,

_____

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The content of these articles does not necessarily convey the standpoints of Undod as a movement. We have chosen to publish a variety of items by people who support our principles as a movement in order to inspire and spur conversation.