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People's Assembly Wales are launching a Senedd petition this month demanding nutritious, free school meals for every state school pupil in Wales.

As a first step campaigners are asking Welsh Government to urgently extend free school provision to all children in poverty and to all infants.

People's Assembly Wales are launching a Senedd petition this month demanding nutritious, free school meals for every state school pupil in Wales.

The campaign is inspired by Finland which has had universal free school meals since 1948 and growing levels of child poverty during the pandemic following a decade of austerity. As a first step campaigners are asking Welsh Government to urgently extend free school provision to all children in poverty and to all infants.

According to Child Poverty Action Group over half of children in Wales (70,000) are currently not eligible for free school meals with Wales being the worst country in the UK for allocation of free school meals to poor children.

The petition will be launched at an online public meeting that will be broadcast live from the People's Assembly Wales facebook page at 7pm on Wednesday 9th December.

Speakers will include Ellie Harwood Child Poverty Action Group, Dr Steffan Evans Bevan Foundation, Mairead Canavan National Education Union, Frances Curran Former Member of Scottish Parliament, Allison Hulmes British Association of Social Workers Cymru, Donna Ali The Campbell Network Sue Leader Unite Community and Adam Johannes Cardiff People's Assembly. The meeting will be chaired by Shahien Taj OBE

Adam Johannes from People's Assembly Wales, who campaign against austerity, cuts and privatisation, said,

"No child in Wales should be turned away from a meal if they cannot afford it. We are proud to be launching a people's campaign this month for the Welsh Government to introduce a Universal Free School Meal ensuring that school meals are provided free of cost to all children all year long–without demanding they prove they are poor enough to deserve help getting one hot meal a day."

"As a first step we are asking the Welsh Government to urgently extend provision to all families in poverty including those on universal credit or equivalent  benefits or with no recourse to public funds, to implement universal free school meals to all infants as is the case already in England and Scotland, as the first step towards nutritious, free school meals for every state school pupil in Wales: Universal Free School Meals!"

"This radical anti-poverty and pro-dietary health measure works in Finland, Sweden & Estonia. We think it can work in Wales"

Allison Hulmes, National Director of British Association of Social Workers (BASW) Cymru said,

"BASW Cymru is supporting the free school meals campaign as fundamental to the anti-poverty campaigning we’ve been undertaking for a number of years in the UK and internationally. We want to see an end to poverty and inequality, and challenge the austerity policies that contribute to this."

"In 2017 myself and a group of our members marched the 100 miles from Birmingham to Liverpool to raise awareness of the impact of politically driven austerity policies on some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and to share their stories. We marched under banners with a simple message: Boot Out Austerity. When I returned from the march, foodbanks in Wales were running out of supplies and we were campaigning to feed eligible children during the school holidays – this was an affront to human dignity of the brave and strong women and children I had supported as a social worker."

"Three years on, things are so much worse, in their day to day work social workers see the effect of poverty on vulnerable children and families. Social work is a profession rooted not only in compassion, but in human rights and a commitment to social justice. This is why we must campaign in support of free school meals for all children in Wales."

Campaigners are urging Wales' First Minister Mark Drakeford to follow Nicola Sturgeon in announcing, before Christmas, plans to extend free school meals to all primary school children. Both England and Scotland already have universal free school meals for all infants, something denied to Wales' infant population by the Welsh Government.

Frances Curran, former Member of Scottish Parliament for Scottish Socialist Party who will be speaking at the meeting said,

"Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister committed last week to introduce free school meals, lunch and breakfasts, for primary school pupils, on school days and holidays. As a member of the Scottish Parliament I introduced the Free School Meals bill 15 years ago  but it was derailed.  I'm glad that the Scottish parliament has got there in the end.  The arguments are now won, and once introduced no child in Scotland will go hungry and every parent can go to bed reassured and safe in that knowledge. This is decision a parliament and a nation can be proud of and I am."

As an MSP between 2003-7 Frances Curran was the public face of a large grassroots campaign for universal free school meals that won support from trade unions, anti-poverty, women's and community groups, the British Medical Association, dieticians, nutritionists and public health experts."

Due to racism, BAME communities are disproportionately impacted by poverty resulting in the campaign already winning strong support from many BAME organisations.

Donna Ali, The Campbell Network - a group named after Wales' first black headteacher, the late Betty Campbell, founded by parents campaigning against the effects of racism in school - said

"The government should roll out universal free school meals to all pupils, throughout the journey of full-time education. It is important that children receive a nutritious diet during a time of rapid growth and development.

According to Public Health Wales, receiving a stable diet can help reduce health risks later. In the long run we could be saving the NHS over 400 million on diabetes costs and 466 million on heart disease each year, to name just a few. The roll out will also help to eliminate educational inequalities.

Poverty is a pandemic pushing people into debt, unable to pay for things, which then has a knock-on effect on resources needed for society. Wales needs to adopt the slogan: Prevention is better than cure. Everything we do should be from the foundation up!"

Sue Leader, Unite Community Wales, the community wing of the trade union Unite, organising among unwaged and low income families said,

"Free school meals for all is fundamental to developing a fairer society. It's a crucial building block towards levelling the academic playing field, as well as supporting the children and their families through one of the harshest times globally in living memory. Along with free lifelong learning, this ought be a no brainer."

TEACHERS UNIONS SPEAK OUT

Mairead Canavan, the representative for Wales on the executive of National Education Union, the UK's largest school staff union ahead of the campaign launch, which she will be speaking at, has given several vivid examples of the problems teachers and other school staff are seeing with child hunger:

'In advance of the National Education Union’s annual conference last year, more than 8,000 teachers, school leaders and support staff from across the UK made clear their views on the state of education and the conditions they are having to work under. In the survey we heard about:

“More children coming to school hungry and thirsty, worse after a weekend.”

“Children begging other students for food.”

“More children not having eaten, some for days.”

“I teach in a very deprived area.  Most of our children don’t have food at home.  They are entitled to free school meals but this is the only meal they eat in 24 hours.”

“More families are accessing the food bank and asking for support through breakfast and teatime clubs.”

“We have provided uniform to many children who are unable to pay for it.  We pay for shoes too.  We have even provided shampoo and basic toiletries to students.”

“Cuts to breakfast club because of cuts to budget.”

“Children without coat or with ill-fitting clothes.  Children with ill-fitting shoes.”

“Children with ripped shoes, unclean, tired and thin.”

“Also increased mental health issues and inability to access services.”

“Children with bed bug infestations, rats in their homes.”

“Less and less school contributions for trips, events, fundraisers, families getting into debt with school dinner payments.”

“They just don’t have the money at home and they’re telling us like it’s normal.  It’s so sad.”

School staff say that “Government must stop blaming schools for the impact of its austerity policies upon the most vulnerable in our society and take action to alleviate the suffering of the increasing numbers who are living in poverty.”'