Nick Clegg: Tory school meal plans 'hit children's health'

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Conservative proposals to end free school lunches for infants in England will have a negative impact on children’s health, Nick Clegg has said.

The Conservatives are proposing free breakfasts for all primary school children instead.

But Mr Clegg said that unlike school lunches, breakfasts have no minimum fruit and vegetable portions.

He said it meant children would no longer get free access to two of their “five-a-day”.

School food is shaping up to be a major battlefield at the general election:

  • In Scotland children in their first three years at primary schools will continue to get free school lunches whoever wins the general election, after it was introduced by the Scottish government in 2015
  • In Wales all primary school children are entitled to a free school breakfast, in addition to free lunches for infants
  • Labour says it will introduce free school lunches for all primary school children in England, not just those in the first three years, paid for by removing a VAT exemption on private school fees
  • The Conservative manifesto says: “We do not believe that giving school lunches to all children free of charge for the first three years of primary school – regardless of the income of their parents – is a sensible use of public money”
  • The Liberal Democrats say they would extend free school meals “to all children in primary education and promote school breakfast clubs”

All food served in English schools has to comply with nutritional standards, which means no sugary drinks or foods high in fat, sugar or salt can be served at breakfast clubs.

But the Lib Dems say the rules are more “lax” than at lunch and while fruit and/or vegetables must be “available”, no minimum portions are set.

Mr Clegg – who created the free lunch policy when he was part of the coalition government – said: “Theresa May’s plans would hit children’s health by depriving them of a free nutritional meal at school.”

He said the Tory proposals were “particularly short-sighted when we are struggling with soaring levels of childhood obesity,” adding “Theresa May should take her inspiration from Jamie Oliver not Oliver Twist”.

The TV chef, who has become a high-profile food campaigner in recent years, has called the plans “a disgrace”, saying “It’s a fact. Children perform better after eating a decent lunch.”

A Lib Dem poster criticises the prime minister by playing on the Charles Dickens character’s words, saying “Please Theresa, May I have some more”.

The Conservatives say research shows breakfast is just as good, if not better, at boosting performance in the classroom and far cheaper – and the money saved could be ploughed back into school budgets.

The Conservative manifesto pledges to replace free school lunches for all children in the first three years of primary education in England with free breakfasts. The party said the move could save £650m a year.

The figures have been disputed, however, with researchers at the Education Data Lab finding that free school breakfasts could cost anywhere between £180m and £400m per year, depending on the level of take-up among school children.