As well as providing vital relief to disadvantaged children and families, free school meals are essential to ensuring children reach their full potential, writes Dr Jennie Parnham from the School of Public Health.
In England only infant schoolchildren (4-7 years) are given universal free school meals (UFSM). For older children, free school meals are means-tested and are only available to households receiving Universal Credit (with incomes <£7,400/year). The remaining children must pay for school meals.
This policy will dramatically expand the current free school meal provision in London, reaching 270,000 children at a cost of £130 million. But what will this unprecedented policy announcement mean for children, their families, and our wider society?
Improved access to healthy food
We know that UFSM programmes improve access to healthy food for all children but are especially important for low-income children. It is estimated that 800,000 children who experience poverty are not eligible for a free school meal. These children are at the greatest risk of food insecurity, with reports of children having poor quality packed lunches or skipping lunch at school all together.
However, in the current cost of living crisis, access to food is of growing concern to many families, regardless of income. In September 2022, roughly one in four households with children experienced food insecurity . Research has suggested that children reporting food insecurity were from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
Indeed, when the UFSM for infants was first introduced in 2014, uptake of school meals for children who weren’t previously eligible rose from around 35% to over 80%, indicating that price was a barrier to accessing school meals for most families. So, we can be sure that this policy will improve access to food for a wide range of children.
Crucially however, it is not just access to food. UFSM programmes have been shown to improve access to healthierfood. Our evaluation of UFSM demonstrated that the policy improved the dietary intake of children at school. This is because schools meals are typically healthier than the food brought from home in a packed lunch. School meals contain less ultra-processed food which is high in fat, sugar, and salt compared to packed lunches.
Benefits beyond the food
UFSM programmes have been shown to have benefits beyond the food that they serve, including:
- Reduced stigma at school
- Improved behaviour and academic performance
- More children of a healthy weight
- Improved finances for families, saving £440 year.
Indeed, a cost-benefit analysis estimated that for every £1 invested in a UFSM programme could return £1.71 in benefits across education, employment, health, and school finances. So, it is likely that new policy in London will provide wide benefits to families and the economy. Although these calculations were made assuming the programme would run for longer than one year.
Not to taste – criticisms of the policy
However, the policy has not been received well by all. The feasibility of scaling up school meal provision in London schools in less than a year has been questioned , with concerns that the funding does not cover upgrades which may be needed in school kitchens.
The choice of a universal approach has also been questioned . Critics have highlighted the imbalance that money will be spent on middle-class primary school children while many secondary school children in poverty will be unaffected. It has been suggested that a targeted approach which covers all ages could be a better use of government funding.
Finally, campaigners have also highlighted that this will further exacerbate the imbalance of free school meal provision around the country. The coverage of free school meal policies varies greatly across the UK, due to local councils and devolved governments using their own budget to extend provision. For example, some London boroughs (Newham, Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets) already offered UFSM to primary school children, with Wales and Scotland making announcements to do the same.
The future of school food
This policy has been penned as an emergency short-term measure, but many will be watching the success of this policy with bated breath. Our research has shown how school meals have been a point of political contention in recent years. Despite this, the case for expanding free school meals has been gaining significant political and public support. If successful, it is probable that this policy could influence the direction for future school meals policy.
Until then, lets grab a tray and get in line.
Dr Jennie Parnham is a Research Associate in the Public Health Policy Evaluation Unit at the School of Public Health.