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A decade of free school meals in Southwark: healthier children with better results for schools and families

19 September 2023

This September marks ten years since Southwark Council began providing universal free school meals for all primary school children.

It coincides with the Mayor of London rolling out universal free school meals (UFSM) to all primary schools in London.

In Southwark, we know how life-changing this move will be for the capital’s children given the impact we’ve seen in Southwark and the three other boroughs who have long-term UFSM schemes (Newham, Islington and Tower Hamlets):

  • Improved health outcomes for children: prevalence of obesity among reception children down by 9.3 per cent and 5.6 per cent among year 6 children on average
  • Extra support for low-income families through austerity and now the cost of living crisis: families with two adults and two primary-aged children save approximately £37 per month in total on food spending, equating to £3,330 over the 10 years of free school meals during term-time in Southwark
  • Super-charged school performance: Southwark’s schools have gone from joint bottom to 97 per cent Ofsted rated good or outstanding, with free, healthy school meals playing an important part of school improvement success

Southwark has high levels of deprivation with 38 per cent of the borough’s children living in poverty. The current household income threshold for government-funded free school meals (£7,400) excludes many children in the borough whose families are struggling financially.

This school year Southwark Council will fund all secondary school children whose parents receive Universal Credit but miss out on free school meals because they earn above the threshold. The money comes from savings made thanks to the Mayor of London’s funding package to fund free school meals for all primary school children in London.

Cllr Kieron Williams, Leader of Southwark Council, said: “It’s been a decade of doing the right thing for our children. The millions of free healthy school meals we’ve provided for all our primary and nursery school children haven’t just prevented hunger, they’ve boosted children’s health and learning too. So I’m delighted we’ve been able to go even further this month by extending free school meals to children in need in our secondary schools.

“As the cost of living spirals, these free nutritious meals are becoming a lifeline for ever more families. With two in every five children in London now living in poverty, and many more families only just getting by, you can see why.

“Our national aspiration has to be for every child to have a healthy meal at school every day. As a start, it’s high time the Government funded free school meals for all children from low income families. As it stands millions are missing out, and we should never accept children going hungry.”

Cllr Jasmine Ali, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Children, Education & Refugees, said: “Over ten years of Southwark Council providing universal free school meals has been nothing short of transformative for our children. In that time, our schools have made massive strides going from joint bottom to 97 per cent Ofsted rated good or outstanding. Free healthy school meals have been pivotal in our primary schools’ success story, which is why we are happy to extend the offer to children in need in our secondary schools.”

Jessica Calnan, Assistant Headteacher at Alboin Primary School, said: “At Albion, we feel fortunate to have received Southwark healthy free school meals for the last 10 years. We have had a 100 per cent uptake on these freshly prepared hot meals, with the exception of children who have particular needs, for the past 10 years. This means we can encourage children to make healthy choices, try new foods and be exposed to dishes from different cultures through the rotating menu and salad bar options. This is important to us as a school as it celebrates our rich, diverse culture.”

“We have seen over time that well-nourished children remain focused during their afternoon lessons and the benefits to families are clear in the current cost of living crisis. We work hard to ensure our school meals are inclusive of all dietary requirements and reduce the risk of exposure to potentially fatal allergens. We love that everyone eating school meals together provides our children with a shared social eating experience from our nursery cohort of three year olds right up to our oldest children in year six.”

Page last updated: 20 September 2023

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