OPINION - Universalism shouldn’t just be for the elderly — on free school meals Sadiq Khan is right

The Mayor is planning to provide free meals for primary school children in London  (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
The Mayor is planning to provide free meals for primary school children in London (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

I vividly remember being at school and eating my meal with my friends — and never once wondering who was paying for it. Of course I was being naïve, but let’s be honest: that should always be the case. Otherwise horrible social divisions — who is on free school meals and who isn’t — emerge, with all the poison that they bring.

So three cheers for the Mayor of London’s free schools meals initiative, which came into force this week.

This academic year, all primary school children in state-funded schools in London will get free school meals. Sadiq Khan is providing the funding to feed the children of London as an emergency cost-of-living support measure. Khan recognises that people are struggling and realised he had to step in to do something. Sadly not only is our Government failing to act, but they are criticising him for having done so.

Since the Mayor announced that he was planning to provide free school meals for the children of London, there have been some ridiculous and at times cruel things said about the policy. Former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe was one of the people who took to the airwaves calling the idea a stupid one, saying it’s not the Government’s job to “feed people’s children”. Yes, in 2023 we have people who seem to think as a society we have no or little duty of care for children.

We give pensioners heating grants regardless — why should it be different for children who are our future?

I was not shocked to hear Widdecombe’s comments. She is of the “Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” era. But the sad thing was that she was not alone. One leading radio presenter actually said on air that people should not be having children if “they can’t

feed them”. Hearing that was really depressing. I could not help but think of the incredible parents out there struggling, because it is really hard when inflation is through the roof.

The introduction of universal free school meals for the 2023/24 academic year could save families upwards of £440 per child. That’s fantastic in and of itself. But what it is also does, which is amazing, is it allows teachers and schools to focus on education, rather than playing social worker or having to police who should pay for food and who should not.

Children should not be being turned away from having a meal and we should have a safety net even if that means, in the eyes of people like Widdecombe, we feed the kids of middle-class families who could afford the school meals. We’re happy to adopt universalism when it comes to those at the other end of the age scale: we give pensioners heating grants whether people are poor or not. So why should it be different for the children who are the future of this country?

The blanket nature of the policy is vital to it working. More than two million pupils were eligible for free school meals in England in the 2022/23 academic year, but last year an analysis from the Lib Dems indicated that perhaps 100,000 pupils not eligible for free school meals were having to come to school with very little, sometimes nothing at all. That’s 100,000 kids going hungry and being turned away from a school food line. That is not just shameful but I think criminal and it is easy for us to fix, and fix it the Mayor of London has. More cities should take the initiative themselves — if the Government doesn’t have the courage to step in.

Kenyan president William Ruto (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Kenyan president William Ruto (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Africa is the future

The African Union is joining the G20. This a powerful acknowledgement of a continent of one billion people. Africa and Africans will have a voice around the top table. Welcoming the president of the AU, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi embraced him like a brother coming home.

I say that because permanent G20 membership signals the rise of a continent whose young population is set to double by 2050 and make up a quarter of the planet’s people. India understands this and hopefully can mentor the AU’s 55 member states. These include Kenya, which I have just returned from, and whose president William Ruto I admire.

As an African, I might be somewhat biased in saying that Africa is the future, but it is true. The world is changing and with development in the world of technology, young Africans are able to shape their own vision of their continent and this is something G7 countries like the UK have to wake up to or they will be left behind by the future superpowers of the world.

Nimco Ali is a columnist and campaigner