Having watched the government for the second time this year make a U-turn on the free school meals debate, I am once again reminded of the many children that will rely on this and if it will go far enough. I relied on free school meals from the late years of primary school all the way through to the end of high school, and I am wondering what this debate will do to the welfare of children beyond the politics.
Outside of politics, those who oppose free school meals can often be found in newspapers and Facebook posts, with comments such as that parents should not have had children if they couldn’t afford them, with the crude phrase ‘If you can’t feed’em don’t breed’em’ coming up in some comments.
I remember being 8 years old, standing in front of the cash machine with my Dad, and seeing him tell me we only had £5 left for the week
Using myself as an example, when I was born, I was born into a middle-class family with great financial security. Though, within a few years, after my parents had divorced and several familial financial incidents, that financial security was gone.
Around the same time, my mother, who lived in Germany, could no longer work due to health issues, and my Dad has struggled to keep down a job for the same reason. I remember being 8 years old, standing in front of the cash machine with my Dad, and seeing him tell me we only had £5 left for the week.
Change of circumstances is not the fault of the parent, and the current system allows such cases to often fall between the cracks. If it wasn’t for the fact that my Grandma was willing to take us in to her house, there is a chance we would have ended up homeless.
Such facts are hard to comprehend fully at that age, and when that is all you have experienced, seeing anything different can be quite startling. After moving in with my Grandma and changing schools aged 9, I met one of my still very close friends, and very soon after met his family, who were in a better financial situation than I was. I noted that back then, and it was the first time I felt different from my peers – a feeling that would follow me for years to come.
I wasn’t the only one to feel this way. Journalist Pete Wise, who also relied on free school meals growing up, noted how the free school meals debate ‘will have affected how kids see themselves, and how they are seen by others’ in an opinion piece for the Metro.
One person in my year had the money to buy people engraved iPhones in exchange for favours, with another getting £500 each month as pocket money from their parents
There is a sense of otherness that is promoted in these debates, especially when you consider the remarks of Conservative MP for Mansfield, Ben Bradley, that free school meals would directly benefit a ‘crack den and a brothel’, which just further stigmatises those who are struggling to make ends meet. In other words, this debate puts a clear distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Even outside of the debate, once you step outside of that realm, this sense of otherness follows you everywhere. After high school, I was very lucky to get a bursary to go to a private school for sixth form where my family wouldn’t be charged for tuition fees, which I realise already puts me at an advantage to some.
As soon as I got there, I immediately realised that I was the poorest one there and whilst I was never made to feel different outwardly by my peers, which I was thankful for, I realised the attitude there was completely different. People didn’t have to worry about what they bought, how much it was or whether it was actually necessary.
For instance, one person in my year had the money to buy people engraved iPhones in exchange for favours, with another getting £500 each month as pocket money from their parents. Having come from a household that counted every last penny and bought the cheapest possible, this was a startling revelation.
‘Cheapest is best’ was always my motto, but I soon started to realise that cheapest was often the most harmful
They had been brought up with different attitudes to money and so the debates were starting to make sense; some of them had simply not been brought up to understand that disposable income has become a luxury, and not a right.
This experience did not change my attitudes towards money, and by the time I started university, I was very aware of the frugality that I was brought up with. ‘Cheapest is best’ was always my motto, but I soon started to realise that cheapest was often the most harmful, and canned food is a good example.
It may be the cheapest, and what I can afford, but it simply was not good nutritionally for my body. In hindsight, I realised one key point; why should the poorest of us get the worst? When it comes to the free school meals debate, those who oppose it can sounds like this to us; ‘they are poor, and clearly lazy, so why should they get it?’
This harmful rhetoric is something that has followed me for the majority of my life. No one, neither parents nor children, should be ashamed for their life circumstances, and instead those at the top should be enriching people’s lives instead of grouping people into ‘us’ vs ‘them’. It is a dangerous social Darwinism theory which I hope that people will abandon in the years to come, though I am not holding my breath.
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