Since September 2014, all infant-age schoolchildren in England have been entitled to receive a free school meal. This means that pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 all benefit from the change. Previously, only those in receipt of certain means-tested benefits had been eligible, so the new scheme has resulted in a huge rise in the numbers of children covered to almost two million.

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What Is the Rationale Behind the Scheme?

The new entitlement represents a real economy for parents, with the BBC estimating a saving of approximately £400 per child annually. Of course, this is even better news for those with more than one child. But why has it been introduced?

The government felt that packed lunches in most cases did not provide as great a nutritional balance as a cooked school lunch. They argued that ensuring each child has had a good meal at lunchtime would help concentration levels in the afternoon, leading to an inevitable rise in academic outcomes. In the light of previous sad cases of neglect, the move has also been welcomed by many people as a way to ensure that all young children are receiving at least one healthy meal every day. In fact, many feel that the government should widen the remit to cover all primary-age children, a view which is endorsed by the National Union of Teachers.

How Popular Is the Scheme?

Official statistics have found that after just three months, around 85% of all infant-age children are enjoying a free meal provided at school. This shows what a popular move it has been, although not all parents have decided to take up the offer, which is not compulsory. This may be due to fussy eaters, complex allergies or some parents simply feeling that they can provide a better packed lunch than a school dinner.

Any Problems?

Of course, since the implementation of universal free school meals for infants, many school kitchens have needed extensive refurbishment or even an extension to deal with the huge increase in the numbers of pupils they are obliged to provide meals for. There is now even more need than ever for commercial refrigeration products, such as those on offer at Fridge Freezer Direct Ltd. But although the cost of the upgrade of school kitchens was intended to be covered by the government, many local councils have reported a deficit in the funds which have been made available to them. Some schools have been forced to offer sandwiches and other cold meals temporarily, in order to fulfil their legal obligation.

Schools have also traditionally received a “pupil premium” according to how many pupils were in receipt of free school meals. Many parents who would previously have been entitled on income grounds no longer bother to register their eligibility, as their children will benefit automatically. This can lead to a loss of valuable funds for the school.

In spite of some inevitable teething problems, it is generally felt that the scheme is a positive thing for children and parents. Parents can make a useful saving, and society can feel good about the fact that even the most vulnerable children will be receiving a good meal each day.