Child waiting for school dinner

Children's health and food

Expanding access to free school meals – a leap forward for child health

3 April 2023
6 min read

Louise Foreman and Nikita Sinclair, Portfolio Managers, Children’s Health and Food programme, explain why we should expand free school meals for all.

Why expand healthy school meals for all?

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan recently announced that all primary school children in London would receive funded school meals for the coming academic year. This fantastic news has swiftly been followed by additional commitments from individual London Boroughs such as Southwark Council – who’ve been funding school meals for all their primary school children for the past decade, and who partner with us on a Healthy School Meals programme – pledging to use the Mayor’s funding to enable more secondary age students to access a free meal when they go to school. And Camden Council, who have announced that they will make free school meals a permanent offer to all their primary age students. Across the UK there have been calls upon the national government to ensure that other children across England do not miss out on the offer of a free, healthy meal when they go to school.  

These commitments are a huge step forward in supporting all children’s right to be able to learn and thrive. A wealth of evidence from the UK and internationally links free school meals to improved educational attainment alongside a host of health, social and financial benefits. Research commissioned by Impact on Urban Health from PwC shows that expanding free school meals has the potential to provide substantial returns, providing a strong economic case for government to invest in laying foundations for better health and wellbeing in the future.   

Importantly, providing healthy school meals for all maximises the opportunity for all children to access the same nutritious food, regardless of where they live or their family circumstances. This is particularly impactful for families living on lower incomes and in neighbourhoods that are flooded with unhealthy food options, and therefore plays a valuable role in reducing inequalities. At a time when 800,000 children who are living in poverty across England do not qualify for a free school meal based on the government’s highly restrictive criteria, it couldn’t be clearer that the decision to expand provision is the right one.

Making the most of this opportunity

The Mayor’s announcement is undoubtedly a brilliant commitment to child health. It’s now important for the Greater London Authority and all stakeholders in the school food system to work together on the full range of considerations that will enable this investment to achieve best possible outcomes for children, families, schools and the catering workforce, both over the coming academic year and in the longer-term.   

Learning from good practice

The London Boroughs of Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Islington and, as of January this year, Westminster, already fund and deliver school meals to all their primary school children. Together, these councils offer many years of experience in how to achieve the best possible impact and value. Whilst London boroughs vary considerably in the context of their school food system – for example the proportion of schools that are directly maintained by the local authority or academised, the number and diversity of catering contracts that are held within the borough, and the proportion of students who are already eligible for nationally means-tested free school meals (FSM) – certain practices are beneficial across all settings. For example, supporting schools with practical approaches that help ensure family registration for FSM does not drop when meals become automatically offered to all students, which is important for schools given that pupil premium funding continues to be calculated based on FSM registration. And attaching a limited number of practical conditions to the funding (such as minimum payment of London Living Wage for the school kitchen workforce, reporting back on the numbers of children who are taking up the free lunch offer, and continuing to ensure that all food being served meets the national School Food Standards) has been found to make a significant difference in maximising social value.  

As well as learning from local authorities and schools who are already delivering nutritious school meals to all their primary school children, non-profit organisations like Impact on Urban Health partners School Food Matters, Chefs in Schools and Sustain have a wealth of knowledge and experience about how good school food policies and practices can be brought to life in collaboration with school staff, the kitchen workforce, and children and families. By building on great practice that already exists we can help ensure that the Mayor’s policy is established on strong foundations and enable knowledge to be shared efficiently across London in preparation for delivery from September. 

Implementing well

Following introduction in 2014 of universal infant free school meals for all children in England who are in reception, year 1 and year 2, many primary schools will have a good starting point in terms of the kitchen infrastructure, equipment and workforce that are needed to deliver healthy school meals to all students. However, taking stock of additional needs or adjustments for school kitchens will be an important part of preparations in the build-up to delivery.  

In the context of continued high rates of inflation for food and utilities, attention must also be paid to changes in the cost of delivering a nutritious meal, whilst taking account of economies of scale that expanded provision can enable.  

Borough councils, city hall and the government will need to work together to ensure that transparent and sufficient funding is available for all school meal policies in the long term. With recent financial modelling by PwC showing a generous return on investment for every pound spent on the delivery of FSM, it would surely be beneficial to the economy as well as to child health for the Government to do so. 

Seeing the long-term potential

The expansion of free school meals to London’s primary school children is currently a one-year emergency scheme designed to help families with spiraling costs of living. While this announcement will undoubtedly provide relief to many families who are struggling to make ends meet, we firmly believe that the provision of free, nutritious meals in schools is an important investment beyond times of crisis and represents a huge opportunity for child health. Being well-nourished is a vital part of what enables children to learn and thrive, so the availability of tasty, healthy food in schools should also be more widely recognised as central to an effective education system. Just as we expect all children to be provided with the books and materials that they need to learn when they go to school, why would nutritious food be considered a luxury? 

The Mayor’s commitment is not only an important opportunity to provide much-needed support to families across London throughout the next academic year. It will also contribute valuable learning and evidence that can help to make the case for bold, health-creating policies in the future, both regionally and nationally.

Our call to government

Our Children’s Health and Food programme will continue to work in partnership with a wide range of people and organisations, to support the development of policies and practices that enable all children to access nutritious food when they go to school, no matter where they live.   

We urgently call on the government to expand the provision of funded school meals for all primary and secondary schoolchildren whose families are in receipt of Universal Credit, so that more children who are living in poverty can benefit from a hot, nutritious meal when they go to school. The government should also work towards the long-term goal of providing healthy school meals for all school-age children, in recognition of the social, health and economic benefits that such a policy would create. Widespread support for such a policy is growing, as demonstrated by Sustain’s Say Yes campaign, which since launching in early March has already gathered backing from more than 700 people, organisations, schools and MPs.   

Finally, the government should continue to engage collaboratively with stakeholders across education, catering and charity sectors – including through the work of the School Food Review group – to ensure all aspects of the school food system can deliver full potential for positive impact on children’s health, our education system, sustainability goals, and the national economy.