Wondering what we’ll be munching on at lunchtime can be a driving thought for many of us, whether we’re at school or work. But for the 1.6 million children who are eligible for free school meals, a guaranteed lunch isn’t only a highlight of the day, it’s a life-saver.
“The fact we’re one of the richest economies in the world and young people don’t have access to at least one nutritious meal a day is frankly appalling,” says Christina Adane, a student and campaigner for Bite Back 2030.
Adane has been fighting for a “fairer food system” in the UK for more than two years. She describes the system as “broken” – especially remembering the “stigma” and “shame” of being on free school meals during her own secondary school years in south London.
“I’ve not shied away from being poor or not having what other students might have had. I never really felt like I was working class until it came to lunchtime. You have the same resources, you have the same teacher, but it’s always the food that separates you,” she tells HuffPost UK.
Adane recalls “sticking out like a sore thumb” during school trips when she felt like she’d get singled out for the meal she was provided.
Her campaigning is driven by making sure other children don’t feel like they’re going through it alone. “I know that it’s not just me and I know that if you are a low income student you’re made to feel different and weird,” she says.
Adane launched a petition ahead of the May half term in 2020, which kickstarted awareness and ultimately led to a government U-turn and extra provision for free school meals during that specific holiday period.
“I was so shocked because at the time of a global pandemic, families are busting their budgets, there’s no money coming in, the whole world is in a frenzy and you [the government] want to take away the one provision, the one secure thing that a child has to eat,” she says.
“That’s what got me started with the petition.”
Her petition, which was signed by more than 430,000 people, came ahead of the campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford for the government to extend food support in England during the summer, Christmas, and Easter holidays.
The Bite Back team have spoken about their campaign on the BBC, ITV and Channel 5 News, while Adane appeared as the Big Tent festival in Coventry to discuss how to keep Britain healthy and hosted a TedX youth talk on the journey of the campaign.
While she and Rashford have not met, Adane was impressed with his parallel campaigning, saying he did a “great job” confronting some of the stigma around free school meals. But his work as only the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to issues children from lower income families face, she says.
“Marcus Rashford’s campaign, as amazing as it was to get the issue on a national scale, I think it was really lacking in the focus on nutrition. What’s the quality of those school meals? If it’s stale white bread sandwiches and dry pasta, it’s not nutritious and the job’s not done,” she says.
Adane says it’s not enough to provide a free school meal if it’s low quality because it “reinforces the status quo that low income children should have low quality food”. (Rashford has since launched a follow-up campaign with chef Tom Kerridge to create 52 cheaper and healthier recipes in supermarkets).
She is “frustrated” by some of the reactions to both hers and Rashford’s petitions, such as blaming parents for not being able to provide lunch meals.
“Children are solely dependent on the systems around them. Whether it be their parents, their school, the government, someone has to ensure a child eats.”
“It’s the system that’s at fault. It’s not the individual. You can’t blame a child or their parents. Sometimes they’re not able to support their kids even though they’re working 17 hours a day,” she says.
“Children don’t earn any money. They are solely dependent on the systems around them. Whether it be their parents, their school, the government, someone has to ensure a child eats. If the parents aren’t able to, the government has to step in.”
Adane credits other campaigners like Jeanette Orrey and Jamie Oliver, co-founder of Bite Back, who have been raising similar issues around healthy school meals, but acknowledges there’s a lot of work still to be done.
Fighting for food equality often feels like a “silent” campaign, she says. “It’s not as loud as racism or the climate emergency because it’s a gradual thing. It’s creeping illnesses and diseases that happen over time because we’ve been robbed of our right to health from a very, very young age.”
Having finished school, Adane now plans on taking a gap year to continue her work with Bite Back 2030. She wants to focus on junk food marketing, school food standards, and a food champions programme creating a network of students across the UK to feed back on their school food system.
Most of all, she’s going to continue fighting for a permanent solution to ensure schoolchildren have consistent access to regular, nutritious meals.
“I don’t want any child to live in a food desert.”