Free school meals for all children in Wales call

By Carys Betteley
BBC News

Published
image copyrightAdam Johannes
image captionAdam Johannes is campaigning after watching his mother count pennies for essentials when he was a child

A man who grew up in poverty is campaigning for all children in Wales to receive free school meals.

Adam Johannes, 40, said watching his mother adding up pennies for food shops and being forced to cross essentials from her list "stuck in his mind".

He wants the Welsh government to immediately provide free meals to all families on benefits, and then to all children within a year.

As part of a series looking at the issues people in Wales would like to see tackled by politicians after the Senedd election, BBC News spoke to Mr Johannes and asked Wales' political parties for their views.

Mr Johannes said many families just above the £7,400 threshold - which is £14,000 in Northern Ireland - were struggling to make ends meet.

He became involved with protesting against poverty, austerity and cuts when he joined People's Assembly Wales to campaign against library closures in Cardiff.

"I come from quite a poor background, so your books are almost like a magic carpet to lift you from your situation to a fantasy world," he said.

"When I was quite young, my father lost his job, in the 1980s and we were plunged into poverty and moved to a council estate.

"I saw my mum doing the shop, and saw her adding up every penny, crossing out items, and sometimes no matter how much she crossed out she couldn't make the sums add up to afford the essentials and she would get very upset.

"People shouldn't have to live this way in a rich country. It stuck in my mind."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionA Welsh government review earlier this year was told all families on Universal Credit should qualify for free school meals

In England and Scotland, free school meals are provided for children in reception and years 1 and 2, and Mr Johannes also wants Wales, which provides free breakfasts to primary pupils but not lunches, to implement this immediately.

"People are missing out by being just under the threshold.

"Quite a lot of people in Wales are in poverty, where that's due to working part-time, being carers or being in low-paid jobs, there's this layer of people who do often seek charitable assistance."

Eventually, with one year as a proposed timeline, Mr Johannes would like to see the universal provision of nutritious free meals for all school-aged children in Wales, regardless of family income.

"The main objection is it costs too much, but what does it cost if we have so many children and families struggling?

"Four London boroughs provide free meals to all primary pupils and Wales is the poorest country in the UK, so surely we can do it here? It's not actually that much money in the context of the Welsh budget.

"It frees up money within a family then for other things in their budget and for people really struggling that can make a world of difference."

image copyrightPA Media
image captionFootballer Marcus Rashford has famously campaigned on the issue of free school meals in England

Mr Johannes points to the situation in Finland, where all pupils receive free meals until they are 16, and said the cost of the programme could be offset by the benefits to public health.

"There are benefits there in terms of childhood obesity, better concentration in schools, better educational attainment and a better atmosphere at school.

"And even in adult life there, there's more communal eating, people meet together, they take health and nutrition more seriously. It's a much more humane society."

Which political parties support free school meals for all pupils?

Welsh Labour said it planned to review the eligibility criteria, "extending entitlement as far as resources allow" and would continue to provide free breakfasts to all primary pupils.

It highlighted that it was the first government in the UK to guarantee free school meal provision for all school holidays up to and including Easter 2022.

Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood said of Mr Johannes's petition: "A Plaid Cymru government will raise the threshold so that children in every household in receipt of Universal Credit is provided with a nutritious and free school meal.

"We will then set a timetable to extend free school meal provision to every pupil, beginning with universal free school meals for infants, then all primary school children by the end of our first term."

Propel leader Neil McEvoy said: "It is a tragedy that in a country as wealthy as ours there are so many children still going hungry. The first thing we need to do, to ensure children get a good education, is to make sure they start the day with a good meal. Propel supports this petition."

A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said: "We are proud that Welsh Lib Dem Kirsty Williams was the first minister in the UK to guarantee free school meals for pupils during the school holidays.

"Our next manifesto will build on this by pledging to continue this provision during all future holidays while also investing in more summer programmes to tackle hunger, isolation and to support learning."

The Welsh Conservatives' Laura Anne Jones said her party would extend free school meals to families without an income and those unable to claim public funds, as well as to learners in further education.

"No child in 21st Century Wales should be going to school hungry," she said.

Reform UK declined to comment.

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