The Trussell Trust, which runs the biggest network of food banks in the UK, has used today’s Autumn Statement to remind politicians that over 500,000 people have sought emergency food parcels since April. There is a particular poignance to this,as today was the day the Lib Dems were having a song and dance about their free school meals policy that they’re so proud of. But while that policy might be very pleasing to any parent of a child in infant school who doesn’t have to make sandwiches any more, is it really the best use of money when departments are being asked to find an extra £1bn of savings a year will be made for the next three years?

If there are some families struggling to feed their children full stop, then wouldn’t the £600 million be better spent expanding free school meals to families on low incomes not currently eligible, and the rest on breakfast clubs, so that hungry children receive not one but two good meals a day?

This free school meals policy really is one of the naffest that this government has announced. David Cameron talks about the importance of slimmed-down government for the long-term, and Nick Clegg tries to move his party from statist left to free market right, yet they agree to spend £600 million on shoring up the mummy and daddy vote. In truth, there wasn’t much Cameron could do: this free school meals policy was the quid pro quo for the married couples’ tax allowance, so he must grit his teeth and let the Libs get on with it.

But when Nick Clegg talks about a fair and responsible recovery, couldn’t he have a little bit more imagination than a policy like this? Of course it helps people with the cost of living, but it helps some people who don’t really need that much help and can afford to send their children to school with a good packed lunch or pay for the food the school offers if they wish.

Free school meals won’t solve the problems that cause people to turn to food banks, and neither, as it happens, will the recovery, because many of the causes are things like benefit delay. So as part of the ‘fair and responsible’ plan that ministers have, it would be great to see a proper examination of food bank use. It’s one of those issues that each side thinks proves its own point without fully understanding. But even so, it’s probably safe to say that the new free school meals policy isn’t the best way of helping families with the cost of living.

Tags: Autumn Statement 2013, food banks, Free school meals, Liberal Democrats, UK politics