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Should all kids get free school dinners?

A school is being criticised for only giving bread and butter to kids whose parents are late paying for their school meals.

Are you entitled to something you haven’t paid for? Usually, the answer to this question is ‘no’, but there are plenty of exceptions. A big one is public services - things like motorways, state schools and the NHS - which the government pays for and allows everyone to use, even if they’ve never contributed any or much money towards it. (Many UK adults give a decent chunk of their income to funding these things in the form of taxes, but plenty of people who use them, such as kids and tourists, don’t.)

Unlike schools, school lunches are not fully publicly funded. The government does pay for school dinners for all kids in the first three years of school, as well as for lunches for older kids from low-income families. But otherwise, feeding children during school hours is the responsibility of their parent or guardian.

This has caused problems at a junior school in Derbyshire, which charges parents for the canteen meals it provides. After a mum skipped a few meal payments, the school refused to keep supplying her kids with food. It did give them some bread and butter to eat, but the mum felt that denying them the main meal was akin to “child neglect”.

The situation is tricky. Most people would consider it immoral to let a child go hungry. Plus, nutritious meals are strongly linked to better learning and concentration. Kids from poorer backgrounds are more likely to have parents who struggle to keep up with meal payments, so the end result could be poorer kids are disadvantaged in the classroom, which is bad for social mobility. But if school meals would still be provided regardless of payment, parents would have a financial incentive to stop paying for them, which could cause the school big budgeting problems.

Of course, one solution would be for the government to step in and fund school meals for everyone. There would be critics, however, because it would be expensive - the current program for under-7s costs £4 billion a year. Because many kids have parents who could easily afford to pay for meals, some people think there are better uses of government money, or that it would be unfair to raise taxes on everyone to pay for rich kids' food. On the other hand, some richer families might be a fan of the idea that some of their taxes go towards a benefit that includes them too.

Read our explainer on: the 'free rider problem'.

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