|Food Policy, Devolution and Wales|
Page 3 of 8School meals and inter-generational health inequalities
Current policy places emphasis upon children, but this requires greater recognition of the crucial importance of nutrition for Preconception, Pregnancy/ Gestation, Birth and Infancy, which follows when young people create families. Very rarely do we have such a captive audience in terms of a single public health intervention. With school children and young people we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to directly improve health and reduce inter-generational health inequalities. We have been surprised by how little attention government has given to school meals as a key aspect of addressing child poverty in Wales. This is in sharp contrast to the more recent and very active role of the state in promoting free school breakfasts, which is centrally funded, with specific nutritional requirements. Why should this not equally apply to mid-day school meals, which could have provided a more focused use of scarce resources? If this were to occur it is possible that this would require primary legislation to remove this duty from local education authorities.
In response to a Welsh Secretary of State consultation in 1998, we argued for nutrient standards in school meals. Again, in response to the Child Poverty Task Group Consultation (2004), we state: "at page 83 of the consultation, brief reference is made to the nutritional value of school meals. Our understanding is that Ministers are aware of the poor nutritional quality of school meals, and the serious implications for health from unpublished Trading Standards Officers survey data, spanning 15 of 22 local authorities in Wales" (WFA letter, September 2004). This was followed up with detailed evidence in response to different consultations.
In 2008, with a proposed private member Assembly measure to introduce nutrient standards, a consultation question was asked about encouraging take up of school meals. In our view the key issue is not legislative, but that the significant costs arising from an increasing proportion of eligible pupils taking up school meals are a direct charge to the LEA. Whereas, the cost of free primary breakfasts is drawn down directly by the LEA from central government and is therefore not part of the local government settlement. Any measure to directly address this aspect must consider the perennial consequences of funding mechanisms used by LEAs. Our understanding is that this does not require new primary law making powers.
These issues have been around for a long time and certainly in our experience over the past three decades and more. We did not need an intervention by Jamie Oliver, which after a period of progress caused a serious reduction in the uptake of school meals, which was completely unrelated to the quality of service being provided by some local authorities in Wales. We have also expressed concern, in response to the 'Quality of Food' consultation (2007), about any further Assembly funds being spent on yet more reviews and literature searches. We recommended that such funds be targeted at addressing child poverty for children living in families in receipt of Family Credit (Now Working Families Tax Credit) who are currently not eligible for Free School Meals. In the current economic crisis this will get worse. Children and young people across the UK will continue to be disadvantaged until the tax credit thresholds set by the UK Treasury are amended. Presumably, this requires a change in UK primary legislation. However, with growing unemployment in the current economic crisis, priority should now be given to making it a direct charge of government to meet the costs of pupils in receipt of free school meals. In our view this would not require an extension of primary law making powers. Could the total Treasury funds made available to Wales, as a consequence of the Jamie Oliver school meals campaign be used for this purpose?
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