Hunger doesn’t take a holiday – and neither can our support

Some have suggested that COVID-19 has been a great equaliser – but in reality, the burden of the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on low-income families, with many struggling to cover the costs of basic essentials, including food.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how little financial security some families have – with disadvantaged children being among the worst affected by this unprecedented crisis.

Since March, levels of food insecurity have risen quickly amongst families with children and school closures have affected pupil’s learning, mental health and well-being. Indeed, the Food Foundation estimates that 8% of Scottish families with children experienced food insecurity in the first 6 months of the pandemic.

It was in this context that the Scottish Government took the decision to extend free school meals to eligible children throughout the Summer, October and Christmas holidays, and will do so again over the Easter holidays.

We did this because we know hunger doesn’t take a holiday, and so neither can our support.

In November, the SNP pledged to go one step further. We know that hungry children can’t learn to the best of their abilities and that school meals boost children’s energy, concentration, and behaviour, which leads to improvements in academic attainment. Ensuring equal access to education is a central component of our commitment to tackling child poverty.

That is why the SNP has made the bold commitment to provide free school breakfasts and lunches to all primary school pupils in Scotland, all year round, if re-elected in May. The landmark policy would make Scotland the first UK nation to offer free primary school breakfasts and lunches to every single child, all year round.

I believe it is our duty to ensure all children start the school day with full stomachs, feeling settled and ready to learn, no matter their start in life.

In addition to the moral case for tackling child hunger, new research published today by Pro Bono Economics, in partnership with Magic Breakfast and Heinz, demonstrates that school breakfast provision is also a cost-effective investment, which would have long term economic benefits for Scotland.

The robust findings show that providing children ages 6-7 with just one year of free school breakfast provision has the potential to generate long-term economic benefits of approximately £9,000 per child.

This is largely as a result of increased lifetime earnings for the children involved as well as reduced public service costs.

Although the SNP’s commitment goes much further, even if only provided to children age 6-7 attending schools with high levels of disadvantage across Scotland for one year, school breakfasts could generate a staggering £200 million in cumulative benefits for the Scottish economy.

For every £1 spent on school breakfast provision, a potential £50 could be generated for the economy – this is excellent value for money by anyone’s standards.

Aside from the statistics, Scottish teaching staff have clearly conveyed the importance of school breakfasts in their communities.

I was heartened to hear that Magic Breakfast currently supports 38 schools in Scotland, including the high school I attended, Forrester High, to provide school breakfasts to children at risk of hunger.

Staff there have described how breakfast has become an essential part of the school day, improving children’s punctuality and behaviour as well as anxiety, with one staff member saying: ‘we could never imagine not having it.’

Investing in school breakfasts is a win-win for Scotland.

Our pledge to provide universal free school breakfasts and lunches to all primary pupils will help to tackle child hunger, support children in catching up on the learning they have missed out on during COVID-19, and generate long-term economic benefits that will help our country recover from this unprecedented crisis.