Food for thought: Free school meals is a life lesson about choice

Blog by Cllr Barbara Murray, Cabinet Member for Education, Employment and Skills

Sadly, one of the defining images of this third lockdown has been a picture of a poorly packaged school meal.

The lack of volume and variety in the so-called “hamper” has rightly led to a huge outcry and claims that children from poor families are being mistreated and taken advantage of.

This won’t happen – and is not happening – in Liverpool.

The city council has long held the belief that providing parents and carers with food vouchers is a much better, fairer and nutritious system. We work with four major supermarkets so that schools and parents have the choice and convenience of where best to shop.

As soon as this lockdown was announced we offered to work with Liverpool schools to manage an arrangement for a £15 voucher to be made available for every child, aged 5-18, who qualifies for free school meals.

More than 80 schools opted in to the system and currently 11,000 children benefit every week. On top of this, we’re also providing food vouchers to families with children aged 0-4 who claim council tax support.

No one is left behind.

The council has also purchased 20,000 vouchers to ensure every child, and care leavers, who qualifies will be fed his February half term. Just like we did last October and May.

We could have waited for a national food vouchers scheme to kick in, but time is of the essence. Our half term vouchers have now been purchased, via the Covid winter fund, and will be posted out to school at least two weeks in advance so families have them in their pocket when they do their regular food shop.

The other obvious advantage of this approach is that there is no stigma attached – and no outrage like a poorly stocked food package would invite.

As campaigners call for a UK-wide review of free school lunches we are proud of our efforts here in Liverpool.

We advise and support schools and believe they have made the best decisions to ensure their pupils receive tasty and nutritious meals.

Taking choice away on such a fundamental issue of how to feed a child is a mistake.

In Liverpool, that’s a lesson that thankfully we won’t need to learn.