Use £340m ‘sugary drinks tax’ to fund free school meals through the holidays, Westminster is being urged by campaigners.
The yearly levy raised by taxing manufacturers of high sugar food and drinks was meant to be reinvested into children’s healthy eating, but charities warn the money has “disappeared into a black hole”.
Campaign coordinator for the children's food campaign at the Sustain charity, Barbara Crowther said it would cost £200m to provide free school meals and holiday activities across all 232 English local authority areas – which would be more than covered by the sugar tax.
Currently, of the 1.4m children eligible for free school meals in England, holiday provision only reaches 50,000 pupils through an ad-hoc pilot scheme.
Crowther said: “There's a huge scale of need. Food insecurity is on the rise. The number of families struggling as a result of Covid on the rise. So we need to make provision for every local authority to be able to roll out a local holiday activity provision programme.
“It should no longer be a lottery whereby all the local authorities that want to run one have to apply to the Department of Education and only the best ten local authorities get the programme. That just leaves so many children out. So we've argued that there ought to be a nationwide holiday provision programme.
“We're yet again seeing that it's been left to the charities, to famous footballers and to backbench MPs to try to push the government yet again, kicking and screaming into feeding hungry children. It seems when there's money for all sorts of other schemes, there's constantly this kind of resistance to supporting families to make sure they've got nutritious food for their kids.”
Where has the money gone?
Crowther said when the government introduced the soft drinks industry levy it was “committed to making sure every penny of the revenue raised would be invested in children's health”. In the first couple of years the government used the money to set up the national school breakfast programme, a healthy people capital fund, and used it to double the PE and sport premium in schools.
But, said Crowther, over the past year information about how that soft drinks industry levy was being used “has just vanished into the ether”.
“So the money is now disappearing into a black hole. Nobody knows what's happening to it. And it's at a time that we need to be investing in health and children's food.”
When the levy came in two years ago, many companies reformulated so their drinks came under the 5g of sugar per 100ml where the tax threshold kicks in. Sustain would like the threshold to be reduced from 5g to 4.5g. This has the potential to raise an additional £50m each year to invest in children’s healthy eating, or further sugar reduction.
The threshold for eligibility for free school meals under Universal Credit is set low: under £7,400 annual income in England and Wales, £7,320 in Scotland, and £14,000 In Northern Ireland. Families even just above these levels are not eligible.
Scotland has 89,000 children eligible for free school meals, Wales has 75,000, and Northern Ireland has 97,000. However, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all extended free school meals over the October half term break. Only vulnerable children in England didn’t get this cover. Wales and Scotland have extended free school meals through all the holidays until Easter 2021.
The 'Rashford effect' is having real impact
While all sorts of organisations – individuals, local authorities, charities, businesses – have stepped-in to help children in England, campaigners argue a long term plan is needed. Many see extending free school meals as a “sticking plaster” and that further reforms are necessary.
Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford who has been raising the profile of child poverty and free school meals, currently has a petition online calling for the implementation of three recommendations from the National Food Strategy. These are: expand free school meals to all under 16s where a parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent; provide meals and activities during all holidays; and increase the value of the Healthy Start vouchers to at least £4.25 a week, and expand the scheme.
Sustain and 108 charities and public health groups – including the CIEH – signed an open letter in support of these recommendations, as well as additional recommendations such as using the soft drinks industry levy to invest in healthy food for children, and expanding the free fruit and veg scheme to all 4.7 million primary school children in England.
Crowther said: “Think about the kind of Christmas we want our children to have this year after the difficulties and the mental health impacts that [the pandemic] has had: worrying about going hungry is something we can fix. That's why we're calling on the government to do the right thing.
“The best investment we could possibly make to building back better is to keep our children healthy and to give our children an effective education.”