Every child in an English infant school will be eligible for a free school meal under a £600 million plan announced by Nick Clegg.
The Deputy Prime Minister has made the scheme, which will save parents about £437 a year for each child, the key announcement of the Liberal Democrats' conference in Glasgow. The measure, which will come into effect next September, is aimed at helping families who are feeling the pinch from the rising cost of living but will also have education and health benefits, Mr Clegg said.
The announcement was agreed with the Conservatives under a deal to allow them to press ahead with their plans for a tax break for married couples, a policy Mr Clegg has ridiculed as "Edwardian drivel" and which Lib Dem MPs will abstain on in the Commons. The free school meals plan will ensure a hot lunch is available to all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 - pupils aged between five and seven - and follows a study produced earlier this year for the Department for Education which showed the move produced considerable benefits.
Mr Clegg said: "My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day. Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze. Over the course of a year families spend over £400 lunch money for each child. I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families.We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits. Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society."
A senior party source said the policy was championed by the Lib Dems and was part of a "straight-up deal" with the Tories, who are expected to announce their marriage tax plan in the Autumn Statement at the same time as funding for the free school meals proposal is set out.
Mr Clegg will use his conference speech on Wednesday to highlight the different priorities of the two governing parties, telling activists he would like to go further and provide free meals to primary children too.
He will say: "For the Liberal Democrats, this is a first step: my ambition is to provide free school meals for all primary school children. Another reason we want to get into Government again next time round. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have made it clear that their priority is to help some families over others, with a tax break for married couples. A tax break for some, funded through the taxes of others. That tells you everything you need to know about their values. We, however, will help all families in these tough times, not just the kind we like best, by helping their young children get the best possible start in life - and that tells you everything about ours."
The party will hope the announcement will draw attention away from a rift over the future of the coalition after Business Secretary Vince Cable suggested it was "certainly possible" the alliance could end in the months leading up to the 2015 election.
Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander insisted that the coalition would last for the duration of this Parliament and dismissed Mr Cable's concerns about the state of the economy and housing market. Mr Alexander indicated that a break-up of the coalition could put the recovery in jeopardy and the Lib Dems were "not going to walk away".
He told Sky News: "This coalition will continue until the end of this Parliament, as we promised, for the very simple reason that we have a very big job to do to clean up the economic mess that Labour left behind and to entrench the recovery that we are starting to see, to make sure that we create the jobs in this country that need to be created, that we deliver the big tax cuts for millions of working people that we promised, that we continue the process of sorting out the financial system."