Cuts will result in Sunderland children going hungry - claims MP

MP for Washington and Sunderland West Sharon Hodgson enjoying a meal with children at Town End Academy.
MP for Washington and Sunderland West Sharon Hodgson enjoying a meal with children at Town End Academy.
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Thousands of Wearside children will miss out on free hot school meals if rumoured budget cuts go ahead.

The Universal Infant Free School Meals scheme, brought in last September, saves the parents of reception, Year One and Year Two pupils around £400 per child, per year.

Since its introduction, the number of hot meals served to reception and infants in Sunderland schools each day rose by more than 1,600 to an average of 13,261.

However, sources in Government fear the scheme will be axed by Chancellor George Osborne in November’s spending review.

MP for Washington and Sunderland West, Sharon Hodgson, says any such move would see children in her constituency going hungry and she has already had calls from worried families.

She said: “Cutting Universal Infant Free School Meals would be a serious blow for everyone who understands how vital eating a hot and healthy school meal is in boosting a child’s attainment at school and their long-term health prospects.

“George Osborne’s cuts would be ending a scheme which is doing so much good all around the country, and it will inevitably lead to more children going hungry.

“I urge the Government to re-think any plans to cut these meals and instead to join us in championing Universal Infant Free School Meals and all of the children that they help.

“This is an issue I have already been contacted about by a number of concerned people, and I have written to George Osborne to make it clear why he should not take this decision.”

The National Association of Head Teachers has said it is looking for reassurance that the scheme, which was listed as a commitment by the Conservatives in the party’s 2015 manifesto, will continue.

And, the GMB union, which supports school staff, said it is shocked by the rumours.

Avril Chambers, GMB National Officer for school support staff, said “GMB members working in school kitchens and dining rooms tell us that even for families that can afford to do better, the quality and nutritional value of packed lunches are atrocious with many children having only chocolate and crisps in their lunch box if they’re lucky.

“Universal free school meals is designed to put an end to this. You can’t put a value on children’s health and educational well-being.

“Furthermore, as this was a flagship policy of the last government, schools have spent millions upgrading their kitchens to cope - what a waste of public money.”

Government departments were ordered by the Chancellor to cut their budgets by up to 40% in July, under his spending review due in November.

The Department for Education has the majority of its spending budget protected, but the Universal Infant Free School Meals programme, which is estimated to cost between £600m and £800m per year, is not.

Healthy eating campaigner, Jamie Oliver called the possible decision a “disaster”, saying the policy had been a “major step forward for children’s health and academic performance” as homemade packed lunches often got “nowhere near the nutritional standards set for school meals”.