Meri O'Connell

Cllr Meri O’Connell (Lib Dem Lead Councillor for Education) has responded to news that uptake of Free School Meals in Reading is the 2nd lowest in the country.

Listen to Meri on BBC Radio Berkshire talking about the issue:

Free School Meals can save parents on low incomes an average of £437 per year, per child. With rising food costs and no wage increases to offset them, that money could make a massive difference to local families.

The evidence for benefits of school dinners is becoming increasingly clear* – a healthy balanced hot meal in the school day helps improve pupils’ concentration and behaviour. It also contributes to challenging the problem of childhood obesity, which remains a bigger issue for families on the lowest incomes.

Cllr O’Connell said:

“I posted on my children’s schools Facebook Pages to ask why parents aren’t taking up free school meals and got a huge response within 24 hours. Parents clearly want to talk about this with the Council and Chartwells**.”

Reasons given included:

  • Schools segregating packed lunch eaters from hot dinner eaters – children will choose sitting with their friends over the type of meal they eat.
  • Long queues to get meals – children want to get out and play with their friends.
  • Lack of simple choices – Chartwells’ meal choices are amazing, but not always ‘child friendly’ food. Children will choose familiar food.
  • Portion size – the meal sizes are fine for younger pupils, but not big enough for older pupils.
  • Monitoring – some parents want to know what their child has eaten during the day.

Cllr O’Connell added:

“There is also the issue of the archaic Council website. Parents applying for Free School Meals must have access to a printer to download the forms, take them to their child’s school and then do it all again on a termly basis. Other authorities allow it all to be done online and you only do it once!

These things are fairly simple to alter at little cost and with minor effort. Reading should be asking parents annually for their views and changing provision in light of their responses. We need to stop being a council that continually reacts to bad news and be more proactive in helping our most hard up residents.”

*Institute for Social and Economic Research, January 2009, Belot, M and James, J Healthy School Meals and Educational Outcomes (first accessed 23rd July 2010)

School Food Trust School Lunch and Learning Behaviour in Primary Schools: An Intervention Study (first accessed 23rd July 2010)

** Chartwells are Reading’s School Meals provider