This summer, as U.K. schoolchildren go on vacation, their school buildings will become hives of activity.  Construction workers will descend in droves to overhaul kitchens and dining halls.  These need to be refitted for a major new purpose.  Starting in September, state primary schools will be serving free hot lunches to all pupils in their first two years.  The United Kingdom has long offered free school lunches to children of low-income parents.  But this September marks a big change: Free lunches will be offered regardless of parents’ ability to pay.

The program is the brainchild of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat (“Lib Dem”) Party.  When David Cameron and his Conservative Party failed to win an overall majority in the 2010 election, they were forced to form a coalition government with the Lib Dems.  This is standard practice in many European countries, but an abnormality in the United Kingdom.  The partnership has not gone well for either side.  Lib Dem supporters are particularly dissatisfied, accusing Clegg of selling out his principles to the Conservatives.

Clegg hopes the free hot-lunch program will be his signature initiative.  He announced it with enormous fanfare at his party’s annual conference in September 2013.  Together with his wife, Miriam, Clegg had a sugary photo op joining students for lunch in a school canteen.  The program is intended to be a clear, tangible accomplishment about which he can brag to voters in the campaign for the next election, scheduled for May 2015.

In the United Kingdom, school meals and their nutrition—or lack thereof—have been a major public policy issue for a decade.  Clegg recently seized the mantle of healthy school food.  However, the man who initially put the issue on the map was celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.  Sometimes nicknamed the “Naked Chef,” Oliver writes cookbooks and stars in cooking shows, but he also campaigns for healthier diets at the national level.  In 2005, he made a documentary series called Jamie’s School Dinners, in which he visited school canteens and exposed the low quality of their food.  The most memorable example was “turkey twizzlers”—spirals of processed meats containing over 21 percent fat—which were standard fare in schools across the country.

British viewers were scandalized.  Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Oliver at 10 Downing Street, and the government spent hundreds of millions of pounds of public money on the “school food crisis.”

The United Kingdom has the highest levels of childhood obesity in Western Europe.  According to the National Child Measurement Programme, one in three children between the ages of two and ten is overweight.

Most Britons see this as a problem for the government to tackle.  Virtually no one questions the government’s right to implement programs to prevent and decrease childhood obesity.  After all, the public pays for the costs of treating these overweight kids.  The vast majority of British citizens receive their medical care via the National Health Service.  The NHS is publicly funded, and nearly all its services are free at the point of use.  According to some estimates, childhood obesity now costs the NHS over £4 billion ($6.6 billion) per year—and that is nothing compared with the costs the children will incur if they carry their obesity into adulthood.

In the years since Jamie Oliver’s documentary, the U.K. government has focused on combating childhood obesity through school food.  There is some logic to this.  The schools give the government enormous access to children’s diets.  Compulsory schooling begins at age 5, and the leaving age was recently raised from 16 to 18.  Many schools, particularly those in poorer areas of the country, offer breakfast in addition to lunch.

This approach has largely removed parents from efforts to combat childhood obesity.  There seems even to be a double standard under which government interventions in school food are seen as laudable, but attempts to help parents are seen as condescending.  Jamie Oliver became a national hero because of his campaign for better school food.  However, last year he came under sharp criticism when he released a new cookbook entitled Save With Jamie, which aims to help low-income families cook healthy meals at home.  In a TV show to promote the cookbook, he talked about his horror at visiting a poor family and seeing a “mum and kids eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive TV.  It just didn’t weigh up.”  Commentators and politicians lined up to denounce him as patronizing and to argue that his personal wealth means he has no idea what he’s talking about.  Jack Monroe, a food writer for the Independent, called Oliver

a poverty tourist turned self-appointed tour guide, and his comments are not only out of touch but support dangerous and damaging myths that “poor people are only poor because they spend their money on the wrong things.”

In July 2013, the U.K. Department of Education published a major study called The School Food Plan.  It doesn’t just exclude parents from the solution: It blames them for the problem.  The School Food Plan zeroes in on home-packed school lunches as one of the biggest causes of childhood obesity.  The authors recommend that schools ban students from bringing their own lunch.  Also, to make sure no one is buying unauthorized food during recess, the authors recommend that students be barred from leaving school premises during the day.

According to The School Food Plan, only one percent of home-packed lunches meet nutritional guidelines.  Schools will do a better job than parents: “It is far easier to get the necessary nutrients into a cooked meal—even one of mediocre quality . . . eating school dinners is better for children.”

There is also a financial dimension to banning home-packed lunches.  Currently, only 43 percent of state-school students buy their meals in the canteen.  More participation would bring economies of scale.  “A half-empty dining hall—like a half-empty restaurant—is certain to lose money.  In order for the school food service to break even, average take-up needs to get above 50 percent,” the report says.

Clegg’s new program for free hot lunches draws heavily on The School Food Plan, though it does not go so far as to ban home-packed lunches.  The School Food Plan recommends making school meals free for all primary students; Clegg’s program offers it for the first two years only.

When Clegg made his big announcement in September, he said the free meals would cost one billion pounds over the two years.  However, in an embarrassing turn of events, he quickly had to announce an extra £150 million to help primary schools refit their kitchen and dining facilities.

Clegg was so anxious to launch the program before the May 2015 election that he failed to consider that many of the United Kingdom’s 16,000 primary schools are not equipped to serve hot lunches to a large number of students.  For some primary schools, particularly ones housed in older buildings, adding a kitchen or enlarging a dining hall may not even be possible.

School principals have been speaking to the media about their frustration over the program.  Clegg’s announcement in September took them completely by surprise.  Also, it was not until January that they received a formal letter to inform them that, yes, they had to comply.

The extra £150 million will help some schools but not all.  Because of the September deadline, the Department of Education does not have time to assess each school’s individual needs.  Thus, funding is being allocated based on the number of students.  As a result, the county of Durham, where schools already have the capacity to serve hot meals, will receive £100,000.  But Oxfordshire, which says it needs £10 million to upgrade its aging school buildings, is getting only £1 million.

Contractors, who are well aware of the deadline, are likely to charge schools through the teeth for the renovations.  “It’s going to be very difficult to get a good deal if they know that you have to have it done by September,” one school head told the Guardian.

Many commentators expect that Clegg will eventually back down from requiring the food to be hot.  Schools may be permitted to serve packed lunches of sandwiches and yogurt instead.

The free-lunch program has proved popular so far with the general public.  However, Clegg’s dream of making this his signature accomplishment has backfired with Lib Dem loyalists.  Their party has only a limited number of bargaining chips in the coalition.  Clegg won funding for his program in exchange for agreeing to support a Conservative Party proposal for tax cuts for married couples.  Lib Dems are angry that Clegg is spending public funds on lunches for wealthy children.  They would prefer to see the money going only to the poor.

“I am supposed to rejoice at this other policy that seems to me to be squandering a lot of money,” Nick Harvey, a Lib Dem member of Parliament, told the Huffington Post.


It’s not that I find there to be anything intrinsically wrong with providing a free school meals [sic] to all five, six and seven year olds . . . But if the cost of doing that is you ignore the poor kids from eight to 18, I struggle to believe that overall this is doing more good.


The free hot-lunch program represents a major change.  Currently, only three countries in the world—Sweden, Finland, and Estonia—give out school lunches with no regard for parents’ income.  Even in France—where school meals are seen as an important way of molding children into French citizens—parents are charged based on their income.

Clegg’s program has guaranteed funding for the next two years.  The government to be elected in May 2015 will decide its future.  He has hoped the free hot-lunch program would be his ticket to participation in that government.  In the end, it may be the reason for his exclusion.