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World News

'Make school meals free for all children' says Christian founder of Oasis Trust

by Donna Birrell

The Christian founder of the Oasis Trust network of schools is calling for all children to be given free school meals.

Rev Steve Chalke was responding to a letter to the government from teaching unions who say all children whose families receive Universal Credit should be able to have a free meal at school.

They say the expansion is necessary to help families cope with the cost of living crisis. 

The Oasis Trust runs 52 schools across the country and Rev Chalke has been speaking to Premier Christian News about why current school meal provision needs to go further :

"Instead of levelling up at the moment, the gap between the rich and the poor is growing and it's growing fast. That's to do with the cost of living crisis with soaring prices. 

"We run foodbanks at Oasis and frequently people want food that doesn't have to be prepared or heated, because they're juggling all the time between warming up food and being able to keep the lights on. The other thing that we find is that some parents have hot food for their children, but cold food for themselves. So even in this grinding poverty, they realise that if they can get warm, nutritious food for their children, it matters, but they're trying to cut back for themselves the whole time."

At the moment millions of families who receive Universal Credit still aren't eligible to claim free school meals for their children. 

For pupils in Year Three and above, whose families earn more than £7,400 after tax and who are receiving Universal Credit, are not eligible for free school meals during term time.

Rev Chalke says this formula means many children from struggling families miss out on a free meal :

"How can a person survive on that? Of course, there are other benefits that are added in in some cases. So I agree with the unions that if we offer free school meals to all children of families on Universal Credit, it simplifies the whole thing. Because at the moment, we have huge numbers of families, estimated to be near two million families who somehow have fallen through the gap. 

"It's a wonderful and much needed, urgent first step that we should be taking now before the winter. But really we should be aiming for universal free school meals for every child. Scotland and Wales have already said that they're going to move towards that in the autumn. So we're lagging behind. 

"The great thing about making this offer universal is you take away the stigma and stigma results in bullying for so many kids. In fact, there are families who are eligible for free school meals, but don't take them up simply because they know the humiliation that it will cause for their children and they consider that to be worse than not getting a hot meal at lunchtime. So it would be a fantastic way of levelling up."

The letter from the teaching unions to the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said vulnerable children not receiving free school meals were facing a "real barrier to learning". Rev Chalke agrees:
"If a child doesn't eat in a nutritious way, their health is poor. Their life expectancy therefore is poor and that is a giant bill to the NHS in the long run. Their attendance is poor, so we lose out economically as a society as well. It just makes sense to invest now to reap the benefits later. It's our moral duty and economically, it's worth investing."

All infant school pupils in England up to Year Two are currently eligible for free school meals.

A government spokesperson said : "We recognise that millions of households across the UK are struggling to make their incomes stretch to cover the rising cost of living, which is why, in addition to the over £22bn announced previously, we are providing over £15bn in further support, targeted particularly on those with the greatest need."


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