Offering free school meals is a public health approach that seeks to reduce food insecurity while increasing healthy eating. However, in the UK, not everyone is eligible for this, depending on their age and the household’s overall income. Now, a study found it would be feasible and acceptable to make it universal for all secondary school students.
Food insecurity has been a long-lasting problem in the UK, which has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s linked with poorer diet quality in children, affecting their physical health status, social well-being and mental health. One in five households with children in the UK experienced food insecurity in the six months leading to April 2022.
Researchers from the University of Bristol studied a pilot scheme for free school meals that was run in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham in 2020. They were the first UK local authority to pilot such a scheme. In the study, the team assessed the acceptability, feasibility and perceived impact of the scheme for pupils and families.
“Universal free school meals are possible to deliver in secondary schools,” Judi Kidger, one of the study lead authors, said in a statement. “They are welcomed by school communities because of their perceived health, social and educational benefits by improving nutrition, levels of obesity, behaviour at school and educational outcomes.”
Expanding free school meals
As part of the pilot program, the borough gave free school meals to all pupils from 11 to 16 in two secondary schools comprising about 400 and 100 pupils. The data showed an overall positive impact on concentration, mental health, food security, and healthiness of diet choices among both the student participants and their families, the study found.
The researchers collected observational and food insecurity data and interviewed pupils, parents and staff. They found expanding the scheme to all pupils was considered feasible and easier to deliver. Staff, students and parents supported the idea, seeing it as a positive intervention to reduce food insecurity and mental health.
In November 2019, before the start of the pilot, 55% of students were on a free school meal program in School 1 and 74% in School 2 got a free lunch. In November 2021, this increased to 78% and 79% respectively. The researchers also found that the stigma experienced by some pupils who claimed lunches under the limited eligibility system was significantly reduced.
Students who had changed from packed or offsite lunches to free school meals were more likely to consume healthier and more nutritious food, based on the interviews with the staff. They also reported that the increased consumption of school lunches came with the social benefits for students, who gained social skills and healthier eating habits.
“Our canteen is now full of students enjoying a warm, healthy meal together which enables great social interaction. We are seeing greater focus in afternoon lessons and more students staying on for after school activities than ever before,” Sally Brooks, principal at Fulham Cross Academy Trust, one of the participating schools, said in a statement.
However, the study had some limitations. The fact that only two schools participated in the pilot program, and the difficulties of collecting data from schools during Covid-19, meant the survey sample was small and response rates were low. This suggests more research is necessary, working with a larger and more diverse sample of schools, the researchers said.
The study was published in two papers in the journals BMC Public Health and International Journal of Environment and Public Health Research.