Mayor’s extension of free school meal commitment welcomed by councillors

A total of 9,818 primary-age children in the borough will receive free meals for another academic year, reports Marco Marcelline

Credit: ugurhan via Canva

The Mayor of London’s decision to extend his universal free school meals programme primary school children in the capital for another academic year has been welcomed by Waltham Forest politicians from both sides of the aisle.

A total of 9,818 schoolchildren in the borough are set to receive the free meals in the next academic year, starting in September. The proposed new funding for the school meals will see Waltham Forest offered £3 per meal, up from £2.65.

The £135 million programme is currently reaching the plates of 287,000 children across London each day. The offer also extends to all-primary aged pupils in special schools and pupil referral units.

Funding for the programme is based on an assumption that only 90% of pupils will take up the offer of free meals.

The scheme was launched in February 2023 as an “emergency” response to ease the burden of the cost of living crisis off parents’ and carers’ shoulders. Its extension this week came after months of uncertainty as to whether it would be continued. In September, Mayor Sadiq Khan said that “in an ideal situation” he wants the programme to be permanent, but stopped short of making a full commitment.

Then, in November, his deputy chief of staff Richard Watts said it would not be known if the scheme could be continued for another year until City Hall received the full details of its annual government funding.

Conservative Mayor candidate Susan Hall has vowed to continue the scheme “until the cost of living situation improves” if she is picked to be Mayor in May.

The government currently provides universal free school meals for children up to and including year two. Previously, primary school children in years three to six had only qualified for free school meals if they lived in households on universal credit receiving below £7,400 a year after tax.

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Responding to the news, Labour London Assembly member for Hackney, Islington and Waltham Forest, Sem Moema said: “I am delighted that the Mayor has been able to commit further funding to City Hall’s ground-breaking universal free school meals policy.  This £140 million investment means that families across London will save up to £1000 per child over two years.  

“With the brutal effects of the cost-of-living crisis, I am so pleased that City Hall is stepping up to feed over 9,800 children in Waltham Forest.  

Sem added: “I have long campaigned on the issue of childhood hunger, with reports coming out over several years showing unacceptable levels of food poverty in the capital. Children who do not have enough to eat are at risk of poor physical and mental health and will struggle to concentrate in lessons.”

The council’s cabinet lead for children and young people Kizzy Gardiner said: “We are delighted that the Mayor has agreed to extend free school meals for all primary aged children. We know how important a hot, nutritious meal is to every child and the positive impact it has on learning. We are grateful to the Mayor for continuing this vital support for children in our borough during these difficult times.”

In her weekly residents’ newsletter, council leader Grace Williams said the extension was “great news” because it meant “all primary school pupils at state-funded schools can continue to receive a healthy, filling meal each day from our award-winning schools catering team”. She continued: “We know that good nutrition fuels learning and improves children’s health, and this will have a huge impact on our youngest residents.”

Meanwhile, councillor Emma Best, who leads the Waltham Forest Conservatives and sits in the London Assembly, welcomed the extension of the scheme but said it did not go far enough: “It is again a missed opportunity to not create a scheme which supports those most in need in London’s secondary schools. I asked the Mayor directly to confirm he would extend London’s year three to year six free school meals programme on several occasions last year and he always refused to do so. I’m glad he is now following Susan Hall’s lead in vowing to continue the scheme next year.”

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