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More than 1m extra children could get free school meals under radical food plans

Some 1.1 million more children could qualify for free school meals under radical plans to overhaul the nation’s diet.

Boris Johnson‘s food tsar Henry Dimbleby called for a major expansion of free lunches for poorer kids by raising the threshold for household income to £20,000.

Currently, only families with household income under £7,400 before benefits qualify – meaning children in low-income families could still go hungry.

The new National Food Strategy, published today, warns that unhealthy diets contribute to 64,000 deaths a year and drive climate change and wildlife loss.

The landmark report proposes a “snack tax” on foods high in sugar and salt, which would raise between £2.9bn and £3.4bn a year for the Treasury.

Boosting free school meal provision is a key part of plans from Boris Johnson’s food tsar

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In a bid to get manufacturers to slash the sugar and salt in their products, a proposed £3/kg tax would be slapped on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt sold wholesale for use in processed foods or in restaurants.

It is understood the proposed tax would add a penny to the price of a bag of crisps and around 9p to a Mars Bar.

Money raised through the levy would fund a major expansion of the free school meals programme, under the plans.

One in five pupils in England – or 1.74 million children – already qualify for free school meals, with numbers soaring since the first lockdown.

Zoe McIntyre, of the Food Foundation, told the Mirror: “Free school meals are a vital safety net for many low-income children and expanding free school meal eligibility would help to tackle the astoundingly high levels of child food insecurity that we have been witnessing in the UK.”

The report also urges the Government to extend schemes to feed poorer children during the holidays for the next three years.

Ministers brought in the Holiday Activities and Food Programme last year after being shamed into providing food during the holidays by footballer Marcus Rashford.

Healthy Start vouchers – which provide free fruit and vegetables for needy families – should also be expanded to households with an income of less than £20,000, the report suggests.

GPs would trial prescribing fruit and vegetables to patients with poor diets under the plans.

Brits should cut the amount of meat they eat by 30% and boost fruit and vegetable consumption by 30% and fibre by 50% by 2032 to meet climate and health targets, the report says.

Consumption of food high in saturated fat, salt and sugar must fall by 25%.

However Mr Dimbleby stopped short of demanding a meat tax, which the report says would be unpopular and politically impossible.

Government food tsar Henry Dimbleby
Government food tsar Henry Dimbleby

He said: “The way we produce food is doing terrible damage to the environment and to our bodies, and putting an intolerable strain on the NHS.

“Covid 19 has been a painful reality check. Our high obesity rate has been a major factor in the UK’s tragically high death rate.

“We must now seize the moment to build a better food system for our children and grandchildren.”

TV chef Jamie Oliver backed the calls, saying: “This is no time for half-hearted measures.”

Prue Leith, chef and judge of The Great British Bake Off, said: “There is so much to celebrate about our food, but we do need to act urgently to protect our health and that of the environment.

“This is a compelling and overdue plan of action.”

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, chief executive at the British Heart Foundation, welcomed the plans, saying: “Diets high in sugar and salt drive dangerous risk factors such as obesity and high blood pressure, putting millions of people at increased risk of heart attack and stroke.”

A tax on foods high in sugar and salt has been proposed
A tax on foods high in sugar and salt has been proposed

BMA board of science chair Professor Dame Parveen Kumar said: “Voluntary measures have so far failed to have the impact that is needed, and a tax at the point of production is the only option if we are to truly get to grips with the dangerous obesity crisis in this country.”

Simon Billing, executive director at Eating Better, said: “As a nation, rebalancing our diets with a lot more veg and less meat, will enable us to eat better meat from the best of British farms with the highest environmental and animal welfare standards.

“Government can’t trade away these standards – it has a responsibility to ensure that safe, healthy and climate-friendly food is accessible and affordable for everyone.

But Food and Drink Federation’s Kate Halliwell said the salt and sugar tax would hike prices for struggling families.

She said: “After many years of cost pressures, businesses in our sector are already operating on very tight margins, and any further costs would simply have to be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher food prices.”

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “I would like to thank Henry Dimbleby and his team for their work on this independent review, showing the vital role our food system plays in all our lives.

“This Government will carefully consider its conclusions and respond with a White Paper within six months, setting out our priorities for the food system.”

‘People are just trying to feed their kids’

A single mum has told how qualifying for free school meals would be a lifeline after the hardship inflicted by the pandemic.

Vikki Waterman, 36, is worried about paying for her eldest daughter’s school meals when she starts in Year 3 in September.

Children are able to get free school meals in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 but it becomes means-tested for older pupils.

Despite working 38 hours a week at a dental practice, Vikki still struggles to make ends meet as she cares for her daughters Eden, 6, and Emmy, 4.

Vikki Waterman, 36, from Consett, NW Durham, with her two daughters Emmy, 4, and Eden, 6
Vikki Waterman, 36, from Consett, NW Durham, with her two daughters Emmy, 4, and Eden, 6

Vikki, from County Durham, doesn’t qualify at the moment but her family would meet the threshold suggested by the National Food Strategy.

She said: “It works out around £70 a month, which is quite a lot of money to me.

“Obviously if the Universal Credit lifeline, if that’s cut, I am going to be over £60 a month worse off with that being cut and then also have to shell out again.

“So I’m going to be over £120 a month worse off in September/October time.

“That would be absolutely huge for me.”

Vikki and her daughters have been forced to move in with her sister after their landlady sold their house due to the strains of the pandemic.

She said she still felt some shame for needing to rely on free school meals and said it was awful that so many families were in the same position.

She said: “Nobody applies for free school meals unless they need them. Nobody is going to be taking up that holiday provision unless they desperately need to do that.

“It’s not a case of people scrounging from the state, that kind of thing. They are just trying to feed their kids.”

She added: “The threshold is that low anyway, the number of families that have plunged under that threshold now is really scary.”

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