Don’t Starve Britain’s Young People Of A Chance At A Healthy Future
By Victor, 01 Feb 2023
Victor shares his experience with free school meals in this blog, and why they continue to be significant for young people.
Hi, my name is Victor or my friends call me Timi, I’m 15 years old and I’m from South East London. I’m from a relatively low-income family — it’s just my mum looking after four children. Food security has always been a struggle for me. When I saw the advert to join Bite Back 2030, I knew instantly that it was something I wanted to be a part of, not just to improve things for me, but for others who have gone through the same situation that I have.
I’ve been on free school meals for large periods of time during primary school and my family has made use of food banks in the past. Free school meals have been the difference between me being here or not. My family went through a really tough period when I was younger and struggled to find food to eat as we were on an extremely limited budget. We were using food banks and me and my siblings relied on free school meals to get through the day. It literally was the only guaranteed healthy nutritious meal we could have. It was hugely beneficial to me and my family knowing that we wouldn’t have to worry about finding money to pay for school meals.
However, the eligibility threshold for receiving free school meals is very low and doesn’t take into account the size of your family. This makes things hard for my Mum as she has other mouths to feed apart from me. The application process is long and difficult and it can be hard to determine if you are eligible.
Right now, my mum pays for my lunches. Lunch times are always a struggle for me. I have a very limited amount of money to spend each day so I can really only get one item. I also had to learn how to deal with pressure from people asking you to buy them something, which is common among those who can afford to. In addition to this, there’s no pricing on anything so if for whatever reason you don’t have enough money you get turned away and your food confiscated from you in front of your peers. This feels really embarrassing.
However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes I’m forced to take certain measures to ensure I’m able to eat. Every other Wednesday, school closes at 2pm which is right after lunchtime and so instead of buying something to eat at school, where a standard meal costs £2.40, it’s way more affordable for me to go to one of the many shops on the colloquially named “Dover” where I can buy a box of chips and two wings for £1. I can even add on a 29p can of fizzy drink and maybe a pack of crisps or even a full bag of Haribo for less than I would spend at school. This leads to me and hundreds — and I mean hundreds — of other students eating unhealthy food, contributing to poor health amongst children in London. Chicken shops are taking advantage of this and opening up on Dover and elsewhere, offering after-school discount deals like two wings and chips for £1 and a half price fillet burger meal.
Even if you manage to stay clear of the junk food shops vying for your attention then your school meal experience is very difficult. First of all, there is no menu shown to students beforehand and so people are not able to make choices before they reach the table of limited options. If you are at the back of the line on a good food day you are in for some bad luck as it is unlikely that you will get any tangible food to eat, and you can never know if you should buy that sandwich during an earlier break and lose out on the cheaper sandwich meal deal that’s exclusively available during lunch, because if you’re let out of class late there’ll be no sandwiches left anyways. But to be honest in all of these situations, while annoying, there is still an opportunity to get some form of food — if you have money that is.
When I do buy food from the school canteen, I often have little option but to buy something cheap in order to save money. My go-to item is a chicken tikka sandwich which costs £1.90. All deserts, and items generally considered junk food such as fizzy drinks, are £1.20 or less. This means I can pick up a doughnut for £1.20 and hope that it will get me through the rest of the day, saving a whole 70p which within a few days would buy me a whole meal. As you can see, not only is it hard for me and others to get food at all, but it is also hard for us to eat healthily. It’s as if the food system is rigged against us just because of our socio-economic situations.
You can see how not having access to free school meals makes it difficult to access healthy food at school. The prices are very expensive for food that is sometimes below standard and is by no means nutritious. It’s difficult to socialise; you’re not allowed to be in the canteen unless you are seated with food, so when you don’t have food but your friends do it becomes an issue. It often makes me lonely during lunchtimes because I’m separated from my friends just because I’m trying to save money. In addition to this with an incoming phone ban during lunch and break from September, I fear that not just me but many people will be left alone during lunchtimes with no social interaction which can be detrimental to our mental health.
Not having access to free school meals makes it more affordable for me to get junk food rather than nutritious food. This puts people at risk of obesity and other conditions such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes when we get older. Buying cheap, unhealthy foods like doughnuts does not get you through the school day, and can cause you to feel hungry which will affect your concentration and ultimately your learning outcomes. Being hungry and not having the right nutrients can also make you more irritable and damage relationships with those at school, including with teachers. For example, English is normally after lunch for me but since sometimes I don’t eat properly it leads to me feeling tired during lessons and I don’t get much work done. I get distracted easier and that has led to the relationship with my teacher worsening.
But not having free school meals mostly affects my family as we have to dig out money to pay for expensive school meals, money that could be better used to feed the whole family. If I had full and definite access to free school meals then it would save money for our family allowing us to eat more healthy and nutritious food. It would also improve various other aspects of my life too, such as being able to be with friends in the canteen, and improving my performance in lessons.
This hits especially hard right now. One thing that has affected everyone is the cost of living crisis. Londoners have previously been at a disadvantage because of the already high cost of living, up to 58% higher than the rest of the UK. It isn’t hard to see how this affects Londoners; for example, 57% of all children in Tower Hamlets live in poverty. This data was from 2020. We are now in 2022, after a devastating pandemic and during a disastrous cost of living crisis.
Prices for many essential goods in the United Kingdom are increasing faster than household income, resulting in a fall in real income, partly due to inflation and the effects of the pandemic. The most important thing to recognise is while prices have gone up, wages have stayed the same. This means even though people are no longer able to pay for essentials including school meals, they won’t qualify because their wages are the same as before and have not dropped below the Government requirements to be eligible for things such as free school meals. Estimates show that 800,000 children and young people like me are living in poverty, but not eligible. This has to change.
It’s a fact that there are 800,000 children and young people living in poverty, but missing out on free school meals — yet what the Government hasn’t considered in their package of support is adjusting the eligibility criteria.
It’s so important they fix this — for many this could be their only nutritious meal of the day. Don’t starve Britain’s young people of a chance at a healthy future.