Journalist Kaye McIntosh explores why expanding free school meals is so vital, for both children’s health and the economy itself.
Expanding free school meals to all children wouldn’t just feed hungry mouths. It would generate over £41bn for the economy in England alone. Even a more modest proposal to only provide lunch for children with families on universal credit would create nearly £9bn in economic benefits, according to research commissioned by Impact on Urban Health (IUH, 2022).
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said this research ‘put a figure on what child health experts already know’. President Dr Camilla Kingdon said: ‘The key to sustainable and strong economic growth lies in the health and wellbeing of our future generations.’ Free school dinners would be ‘an imperative step towards tackling child health inequalities’, she added.
More and more families are plunging into poverty as the cost of living crisis worsens. In the year to 2022, Trussell Trust foodbanks distributed more than 2.1 million emergency food parcels in the UK, an increase of 14% from the previous year (Trussell 2022). Almost 40% went to families with children.
The number of children eligible for free school meals in England alone went up by 300,000 in 2020-21, to 1.74 million (IUH, 2022). But around a third of children living in poverty in the UK do not qualify for free school meals. In England, the strictest of the home nations, families have to both claim universal credit and earn less than £7400 as well as benefits (School Food Matters, 2022).
Reaching new groups
CPHVA Executive chair Janet Taylor says the cost of living crisis is pulling more and more people into food poverty. ‘We have parents that are both working and struggling. Even hospitals have started foodbanks for staff, so there’s a tremendous need to provide at least one decent meal a day.’
Sean Turner, senior policy officer for charity School Food Matters, says feeding children well is fundamental. ‘Children are mandated to be in school 190 days a year. And while they are in the care of the state, we’ve got a responsibility to ensure that they are well fed and looked after. We know that a good nutritious school lunch is the best option for children.’
The economic benefits include cost savings to schools from reduced absences and improved ability to learn, meaning less disruption. Dr Helen Stewart, RCPCH officer for health improvement and a consultant paediatrician, says: ‘A hungry child can’t concentrate on lessons. They may also be tired because they didn’t sleep properly because they are hungry.’
Absence down, earnings up
The IUH report, with figures crunched by accountants PwC, calculates that providing free school meals would lead to 1.2 fewer days absent per year per pupil, citing University of Essex research (Holford and Rabe, 2020).
Other factors include an increase in lifetime earnings from healthier children who do better at school, estimated at £2.9bn if free school meals went to every child on universal credit just in England (IUH, 2022).
Meanwhile, the NHS in England would save £3m from avoiding the costs of childhood obesity, caused by relying on cheap food with low nutritional value. That doesn’t even take into account the impact of other health conditions, or the life-long effect of obesity. Families would save nearly £6bn on school dinners.
The estimates are based on a 20-year period, from 2025. The researchers say universal provision could reasonably begin then, allowing for any changes needed to school buildings and staffing.
Sean says the advantages are much broader than economic or even physical health. ‘There are mental health benefits as well from children being able to sit down and eat together.’
A lack of good food harms children’s emotional wellbeing. ‘A headteacher was telling me about one girl, aged seven. She was always alone at lunchtime. He realised she was sitting in the corner because she was ashamed by how little food she had in her lunchbox; she was hiding.’
Parents who are struggling with the cost of living might have to resort to food that isn’t nutritious. ‘Cheap food is unhealthy food,’ says Helen. ‘You can get a McDonald’s Happy Meal for £2. It’s a lot more expensive to go and get fresh fruit and veg from a supermarket.’
Sean agrees parents aren’t to blame. In fact, when they can, they do invest in good food. In council areas where there is universal provision ‘rather than saving the money they would have spent on school dinners, families spend it on higher value, better-quality food.’
Making it happen
It might be important, but how practical is the idea of expanding free school meals? The IUH report estimates extending school dinners to all children on universal credit would cost nearly £8m for primary schools and £1.6m for secondary schools in England. That’s a big ask under current conditions.
The authors say funding should be ring-fenced for free school meals. Schools must have the support and resources they need, including the space, facilities and staffing.
Although the government may be focusing on spending cuts, Sean says: ‘The practicalities of not extending school meals are an undernourished generation who cannot fulfil their potential.
‘If the government wants to boost the economy and create growth, the analysis by PwC predicts a £100bn boost to the economy over 20 years by investing in universal free school meals.’
It has already been done in some local authorities – and shown results. Essex University reported that in London, where councils in Newham, Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets provide universal free school meals in primary schools, obesity reduced by 9% among Reception children and 6% among Year 6 on average (Holford and Rabe, 2022).
The study shows a cumulative effect, suggesting that starting free meal provision early and maintaining it throughout the primary years would maximise the impact on cutting obesity rates, helping to address the long-term healthcare and productivity costs of obesity.
Action you can take
In the meantime, what can community practitioners (CPs) do? Sean says to encourage families to sign up for free school meals. Not everyone does: the government doesn’t routinely collect data, but in 2020 junior education minister Vicky Ford told Parliament an estimated 11% of families weren’t claiming their entitlement.
Sean highlights that signing up is complicated. In England, ‘you have to first work out that you are eligible, you have to go to the school and inform them that your household income is below £7400, and they have to inform the local authority to get in touch with the government and check with the benefits system to then release the funding.’
Janet adds: ‘There may be a stigma – parents worry their children will be singled out.’ She suggests signposting families to help from organisations such as Citizen’s Advice.
There are also barriers around technology and how to access the system. That’s why School Food Matters wants auto-enrolment. Sean says: ‘It is silly that the government holds data on everyone’s incomes and benefits and won’t share that data from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Department for Education.’
Then there’s raising awareness. ‘Take case studies to local politicians,’ advises Sean. ‘Tell them what you are seeing on the ground, the reality in schools in your constituency. That really helps, because I think there’s a lack of awareness.’
Helen says CPs can use a RCPCH toolkit (see Resources) to support ‘difficult conversations’ with families about food stress. ‘Healthcare professionals have a really respected voice locally, so speaking up for those children will be hugely beneficial.’
‘Take case studies to local politicians. Tell them what you are seeing on the ground, the reality in schools in your constituency. That really helps, because I think there’s a lack of awareness’
What’s on the plate?
Janet highlights that school meals are a great way to encourage a healthy diet. ‘It’s a good way to promote at least one healthy meal a day, including different types of fruit and veg.’
Unlike packed lunches, school dinners have to meet nutritional standards, covering all the dietary requirements for children, Sean points out. But updated standards are long overdue. For instance, ‘the standards recommend three portions of meat a week. That is not in line with contemporary eating habits or sustainability objectives’. The revised standards were ready to pilot before the pandemic hit. ‘We know they’re in the Department for Education on a desk somewhere.’
It is clearly time the government made expanding free school meals a priority. As Rebecca Sunter, IUH programme director, says: ‘The significant social and economic benefits, including the savings to the NHS and schools outlined in this new analysis, strongly set out the case for government to invest in our children’s present and future health and unlock the huge potential of school food to better support families.’
- The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has a toolkit for professionals tackling health inequalities, including food poverty rcpch.ac.uk/key-topics/child-health-inequalities
- A School Food Matters programme encouraging healthy zones for food bit.ly/SFM_healthy_zones
- Impact on Urban Health 2022 report, Expanding free school meals: a cost benefit analysis bit.ly/IUH_free_school_meals
Holford A, Rabe B. (2022) Impacts of local authority universal free school meal schemes on child obesity and household food expenditure, University of Essex. See: www.iser.essex.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/files/misoc/reports/explainers/Impacts-of-local-authority.pdf (accessed 28 November 2022).
Impact on Urban Health (2022) Investing in children’s future: a cost benefit analysis of free school meal expansion. See: https://urbanhealth.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/FSM-Full-Report.pdf (accessed 28 November 2022).
RCPCH. (2022) Child health inequalities driven by child poverty in the UK – position statement. See: rcpch.ac.uk/resources/child-health-inequalities-position-statement (accessed 28 November 2022).
School Food Matters. (2022) England still lagging behind the rest of UK. See: schoolfoodmatters.org/news-views/news/food-policy/feed-future-england-still-lagging-behind-rest-uk (accessed 28 November 2022).
Trussell Trust. (2022) End of year stats. See: www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/end-year-stats/ (accessed 28 November 2022).
University of Essex, (2020) Final report published on the impact of universal infant free school meals policy. See: iser.essex.ac.uk/2020/12/02/final-report-published-on-the-impact-of-universalinfant-free-school-meals-policy (accessed 28 November 2022).
UK Parliament. (2020) Free school meals: .question for Department for Education. See: https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2020-10-08/100944 (accessed 28 November 2022).
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