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Celebrating 15 Years of Newham’s Eat for Free Scheme

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Newham’s pupils, teachers, school cooks, and council are celebrating 15 years of Eat for Free in Newham. The scheme has ensured that every primary school child, regardless of their family income, has been offered a hot, nutritious lunch since 2009.

The milestone has been marked with a celebration with school meals at Curwen Primary School in Plaistow. Newham Council’s cabinet member for health and social care and lead member for children and young people have joined pupils and teachers to reflect on the progress made while also considering how the scheme can be developed further.

Councillor Neil Wilson, cabinet member for health and adult social care; and Councillor Sarah Ruiz, lead member for children and young people, said:

”We are delighted and extremely proud to be celebrating 15 years of Newham’s Eat for Free scheme, the longest-running universal meals programme in the UK. We have made serving free, hot, and nutritious meals to our young people every day a priority, and we will continue to do so.

“The scheme is extremely important to us, and we continue to develop it in partnership with our local schools. The scheme is also important in terms of the sustainable sources of food used, the important role of educating our children in healthy eating, and employing a local workforce, with the overwhelming majority living in Newham and receiving the London Living Wage.

“The feedback from our children is that they enjoy the range of meals served to them on a daily basis, and the food they’re eating is having a positive impact on them in the classroom. We are looking forward to celebrating our next big milestone of fuelling the next generation in Newham.”

What began in Newham 15 years ago is now available to all primary school children in London with the launch of a capital-wide universal meal scheme in September 2023. This year, as part of this work, the Mayor of London is contributing significantly to the cost of the delivery of Eat For Free in Newham. Nationally, only children in their infant years and those from families on certain benefits receive a free meal.

More than five million meals are served every year in Newham’s primary schools. The high levels of take-up make school meals a thriving community wealth-building industry in the borough, with the scheme’s grant conditions ensuring that jobs are at London Living Wage and other enhanced terms and conditions.

When Newham Council announced its Universal Free School Meals Pilot Introduction Strategy in 2009, a key consideration was to ensure all stakeholders were aware of the changes. The local authority has since worked closely with schools to ensure changes have been put in place appropriately, feedback is always considered, and key challenges are worked through together. Over the past five years, the pioneering programme has also focused on developing grant conditions and principles that have seen Newham primary schools working to deliver whole school approaches to food, including growing and food literacy.

Ben Levinson, OBE, executive head teacher, Kensington Primary School (part of the Tapscott Learning Trust), said: “Newham’s investment in Eat for Free has blazed a trail that others are now beginning to follow.

“At The Tapscott Learning Trust, we prioritise our children’s health and happiness. For all our children, having a free, nutritious, hot meal is crucial to their health, learning, and development.

“We know that children who eat well are better learners, have improved attendance, and are more able to emotionally regulate. As such, Eat for Free supports our overall investment in children’s well-being.”

Research shows eating a balanced and nutritious meal at lunchtime can improve concentration and behaviour during the afternoon. On top of improving diet quality and child health, data also suggests universal free school meals boost attainment, attendance, and a child’s lifetime earnings.

In serving hot, nutritious meals each day at no cost, the scheme also provides more security for families who save on food costs. Research suggests the extension saves families approximately £500 per child each year. This is particularly important in Newham, as, according to data, it’s thought half of all children in the area live in poverty. Figures also show just under a quarter of Newham’s children are food insecure, meaning they regularly miss meals or go hungry, highlighting the impact the scheme is having in Newham’s primary schools.

Stephanie Slater, founder and chief executive of School Food Matters, said: “Eat for Free is so much more than just a meal for all children in Newham. It’s a joined-up approach that targets children’s health and attainment, and it creates a school meal system that has the biggest possible impact on the local food economy.”

The borough’s award-winning school meals provider, Juniper Ventures, prepares and serves more than 200,000 meals daily to almost 60 primary and secondary schools in Newham. Juniper is among the only five local authority-controlled catering services in London, with 75% of primary schools in Newham choosing the service.

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