Free school meals? Great! But we MUST tackle causes of child poverty now, demands Bolton foodbank

By Ben Butler

A foodbank in Bolton’s most deprived area has demanded the government tackle the causes of child poverty amid the announcement of a new free meal scheme.

Currently, 37% of children in Farnworth are living in poverty ahead of a scheme confirmed during the Liberal Democrat party conference in Glagow.

The policy, due to be implemented in September 2014 will ensure every child in reception and year’s one and two of all state primary schools have the option of receiving a free school meal – saving parents £400 a year per child, according to the government.

Farnworth and Kearsley Foodbank Project Manager Alex Malone is part of the Trussel Trust which distributed three days emergency food parcels to 126,000 children nationwide.

He said: “I am pleased that it is being recognised what a difference a meal can make to a child, not only by providing physical nourishment but educational and emotional benefits too as the child is better able to concentrate and get the most out of their education.

“There are advantages to providing meals for all pupils as it removes the stigma of needing free school meals that some children currently face.

“However, I hope that further attention will go towards dealing with the issues that cause people to fall into food poverty and enable people to become independent of outside support.

“As a foodbank we recognise that simply providing food is not a long term solution to the problems that people face which is why we work hard to signpost people who use our service to agencies who can deal with the long-term issues.”

Around 23% of children in Bolton currently live in poverty, according to charity End Child Poverty – the national average is one in three children.

Data released also shows a variation in the area in the uptake of free school meals in primary school, with 51% of children taking the meals at Castle Hill Primary School, and only 4% at Markland Hill Primary School.

The educational attainment also differs according to the uptake of free school meals, with 60% of pupils at Castle Hill achieving their expected grade in English and Maths, whilst 97% of children manage to hit the same target for Markland Hill.

A National Childhood Measurement Programme (NCMP) found 2% of year six children in Bolton are underweight and 20.7% are obese – a figure above the North West and national average.

Cllr Nick Peel, Executive Member for Environment, welcomed the pledge. He said: “Bolton currently has the most affordable school meals in the country and as a result has the highest uptake of school meals in the country.

“Whilst the policy announcement by the Lib Dems is welcome, we are still awaiting details on this and crucially it is important that the meals offered are of the highest nutritional value.

“At a time when working families are struggling with paying household bills, help for patents paying for school meals is vital for both them and the children.”

However, the Chief Executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance said the scheme was a ‘silly party gimmick’.

He added: “This comes from a politician who was until very recently rightly arguing against universal benefits for wealthy households.

“What Nick Clegg gives with one hand at the canteen queue he will take back with the other, thanks to the high taxes that finance this kind of spending.

“If politicians really want to tackle the cost of living, they should scrap the range of regulations that make everything from energy bills to the weekly shop more expensive and cut taxes to leave more money in people’s pockets.”

The scheme has also attracted criticism from the Centre for Policy Studies.

Image courtesy of Stephen Downes, with thanks.

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