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Healthy Children, Healthy Pockets, Healthy Home

Tuesday lunchtimes over the last six months have seen me trotting past formal, gleaming white imposing terraces around Pimlico station, laden with a large backpack, a roll of flipchart paper poking out the top, generally slightly late and quickening my pace. About four minutes down the street from the station, past the local Academy (at this hour, a steady trail of teenagers snake ant-like to the chip shop and back), then the local primary school (shrieks ascending from the quarry-like playground below street level, which always makes me think of a car park) I duck left off the main road and, like magic, find myself in a very different environment.

A hidden community

Low-rise flats clump around paved courtyards, grass verges and cul-de-sacs, ringed by walkways stacked up each side of each block. Intricate-looking systems of outdoor stairwells and passageways connect different buildings. It’s certainly a nice estate as estates go and I always notice the friendly greetings exchanged between mums collecting kids from school. I make my way to the community block – pub, community hall and a couple of meeting rooms. I’m working with a group of amazing local parents who’ve nearly completed an In My Back Yard project with me over the last seven-odd months. This is how they describe themselves:

“We are a diverse group of parents in South Westminster who believe we can make a change for all the children in our area. Living in Westminster, there is a huge divide between the extremely wealthy and those struggling to make ends meet.

We believe universal free school meals should be introduced in the borough, for three main reasons:

  • trials in other areas  have shown huge benefits to children’s health, concentration and attainment levels
  • children currently singled out for free meals are stigmatised because of it
  • the costs of school dinners make a big difference to low income families and universal free school meals would really help many families make the transition from being out of work to going back into work.”

Real achievements

The parents have been extremely productive. Out of our weekly meetings, chatting round picnic plates, dreams have evolved into plans, plans into activities and activities into concrete achievements. To name just a few: running a local petition, meeting key MPs at a free school meals debate in Parliament and getting local media coverage of their campaign in the West End Extra and the Westminster Chronicle

The last month has been dominated by their largest piece of work so far: organising a big discussion event which took place last Thursday. It brought together community members and decision-makers to explore  ways to improve access to healthy school dinners for children from low income families, while supporting parents to work without facing huge ‘hidden costs’.

Getting heard

As well as the Westminster Councillor for Children and Families, Nickie Aiken, key people the parents spoke with at their event included Jackie Schneider (Children’s Food Campaign and Merton Parents for Better Food in Schools, Richard Watts, from Islington City Council, where universal free school meals are being trialled in primary and nursery schools already, and Catherine McInnes, an Assistant Director within Children’s Services at Southwark City Council where they’re also running an innovative scheme to make free school meals universal across all primary and nursery schools.

Many other local parents and children’s sector professionals joined the event, and generated a powerful set of discussions and plans for the campaign to move forward. The event was covered excellently in the two local papers, the West End Extra and the Westminster Chronicle.”

The group also made a short film of local parents explaining what universal free school meals would mean to them.

This event sees my project with them nearly at its end, but what I love about the In My Back Yard programme is that for the parents, this is just the first chapter in the story of their campaign – I’m already watching the group, empowered and full of energy, take this campaign to a new level under their own steam.

For more information about the event, the group and the campaign do email Christine – one of the group members – on freeschoolmealsinwestminster@gmail.com, and I’ll post a link to their new online presence next month once it’s up and running…

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