School food campaigner Jamie Oliver has labelled Theresa May’s plan to axe free school meals for infants “a disgrace”.
The TV chef, who led a successful campaign to improve the quality of school food, said the move “put future generations at risk”.
He said: “It’s a fact. Children perform better after eating a decent lunch.”
The Conservatives want to axe the free meals plan for to save money to plug gaps in England’s school finances.
The party hopes to save £650m by ending the right to a free meal for all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, but has pledged to offer all children a free breakfast.
It said in its manifesto: “We do not believe that giving school lunches to all children free of charge for the first three years of primary school – regardless of the income of their parents – is a sensible use of public money.
“There is now good evidence that school breakfasts are at least as effective in helping children to make progress in school.”
But Oliver, whose campaign led to the introduction of tough nutritional guidelines in schools, said: “We’ve already seen the Childhood Obesity Strategy ripped to shreds, now Theresa May and her government have decided to remove free school lunches from millions of primary children.
“This is a disgrace.”
He added: “This move shows a complete lack of understanding of all the data that’s been shared and puts our future generations at huge risk, as well as further undermining our teachers who benefit from well-fed kids.
“What are they going to snatch back next?”
Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the author of the policy, said: “This is a cynical and regressive u-turn by Theresa May because it will hit hard pressed families the most and because she must know that offering free breakfasts instead simply won’t reach the hardest to reach families.”
National Union of Teachers general secretary Kevin Courtney said cancelling the policy did not make sense, or represent value for money, given the investment many schools had already made in kitchens and staffing to ensure their availability.
“Breakfast clubs are a good addition if properly funded, but getting rid of a universal offer of a hot meal in the day is mean-spirited and wrong-headed.
“It is a long time for a child to go without food from the morning until 15:30, which will be the case for many families in work but struggling.”
The National Association of Head Teachers head of policy Valentine Mulholland said it was sad to see the U-turn.
She added: “Many of our members have reported significant improvement in concentration and engagement with learning from pupils since the introduction of the policy, as already evidenced when it was initially piloted.”
Labour, which has pledged to introduce free school meals for all primary school children, said the Conservative plan was taking away food from infants to “plug massive holes left by their cuts in school budgets”.