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Jamie Oliver urges UK to use sugar tax to fund free school meals

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has called for the state to utilise the UK’s soft drinks tax to fund an extra 800,000 free school meals in England, as inflation drives food poverty higher.

Oliver, who was guest editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, said he was “prioritising the gap between the free school lunch kids and the working poor . . . That’s 800,000 kids that we believe are vulnerable”.

Oliver has previously campaigned on obesity and the quality of children’s food, backing a levy introduced in 2018 on soft drinks with sugar content above a specified threshold. The levy raised £334mn in the financial year 2021-22.

He has now backed the Feed the Future campaign led by the Food Foundation charity, which is seeking the extension to free school meals to aid families in poverty as the cost of living rises.

“If you look at the money raised from the soft drinks tax, it’s not far off what’s needed,” Oliver told the BBC. He said that “chaos ensues” from families worrying about how to feed themselves and that feeding children was “the best value of a taxpayer’s buck”.

Speaking on the show, former prime minister Tony Blair, who rolled out services including Sure Start centres for young children, backed Oliver’s call to extend free school meals provision. “The evidence is even clearer than it was in my day . . . that investment in early years matters,” he said.

Former chancellor George Osborne, who introduced the soft drinks levy before quitting the government in 2016, told Oliver that he would extend the tax to more products if he were still in office, adding that a government decision to delay a ban on junk food advertising was “very disappointing”.

A planned restriction on advertising unhealthy foods before 9pm on TV and online has been repeatedly pushed back. The ban, originally slated for April 2022, will now come into force in October 2025, a delay that has been greeted with dismay by health campaigners.

“As someone who’s a member of the Conservative party, Conservatives should not be afraid of sensible use of government to improve people’s health because, by the way, that also reduces dependency on public services down the road,” Osborne said.

Oliver’s call came after Westminster council in London said it would provide free school meals for all children at state-funded primary schools.

Speaking from St Mary Magdalene school in the borough, Oliver said: “I’m proud of what they’re doing here. And when you see it working . . . you do realise it’s not rocket science.”

The Food Foundation reported in October that about 4mn children lived in UK households where food insecurity had been felt in the past month, a rise of 50 per cent since April. It had previously found that those in poverty-stricken households were far more likely to suffer from obesity.

Wales was in the process of rolling out free school meals for all primary-aged children, while Scotland has pledged to do so.

The Department for Education said it understood the pressures many households were under and was supporting more children and young people than ever before.

“Over a third of pupils in England currently receive free school meals in education settings and we have just announced a further investment in the national school breakfast programme, extending the programme for another year backed by up to £30mn,” the department said.

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime Editor