Would Labour’s free school meals make kids healthier? Fat chance

The Labour Party has declared that, if elected, it would extend the provision of universal free school meals from infants alone (ages five to seven) to all primary-school children (up to age 11). Why? This new promise is all in the name of tackling childhood obesity – but there’s fat chance it would make any significant difference.

Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday, the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, pointed out that poor children seem more likely to be obese. The benefits of free school meals were not simply in the meals themselves, she argued, but in learning about health. ‘Part of that is being taught about healthy eating. If you look at poor children now, they are not thin, they are overweight, and that is because of poor eating, because of bad eating habits, and part of your education ought to be teaching you about, you know, how you’d grow a carrot.’

Why would learning how to grow a carrot help with obesity? The mind boggles. Learning why you might want to eat carrots might help. But Thornberry’s suggestion makes no sense. Sticking some carrot seeds in a pot on the classroom windowsill might be a fun, educational activity, but it ain’t gonna make chubby kids any thinner.

In its policy announcement, Labour claimed a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies from 2011 demonstrated the value of free school meals in reducing obesity. Well, not according to the report’s co-author, Lorraine Dearden, who told the BBC: ‘[The report] found there was no impact on absences… no impact on things like BMI, body mass index.’

This is yet another nonsense policy from Labour. The fact that its plans would be funded by slapping VAT on private-school fees shows exactly who the policy is aimed at: Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘soak the rich, nationalise everything’ constituency, the moderately well-off People’s Front For More Bean Sprouts. What’s more, this new plan is particularly hare-brained – the poorest kids (the ones Thornberry claims to speak for) already get free school meals.

Childhood obesity is frequently wheeled out as the excuse for some interventionist policy or another. But levels peaked over a decade ago. Labour’s latest policy is just another excuse to score points with its middle-class support base, and take a swipe at poor parents who it assumes have never seen a carrot. It’s ill-informed, money-grubbing and frankly embarrassing.

Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist.

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