The Impact of Universal Infant Free School Meals

On-off home schooling during the pandemic showed just how crucial school is for education, social development and mental wellbeing of our children.

Our research shows how important school meals are for their physical health too.

Professor Birgitta Rabe and Dr Angus Holford from the Institute of Social and Economic Research have shown, for the first time, how school meals are working to reduce growing levels of childhood obesity. This new evidence is gold dust for Jamie Oliver, Henry Dimbleby, the Chief Medical Officer and all organisations and health campaigners desperate to challenge the obesity epidemic and health inequalities.

This MiSoC research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, explored the difference made to children by Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) –a Liberal Democrat policy introduced during the Coalition government.

This is the first study to address the question using national administrative data on children’s height, weight and absence rates. They found that providing nutritionally-balanced school meals improves children’s health and makes more of a difference to obesity levels than the ‘Daily Mile’ or other exercise projects, warning letters to parents, or encouraging healthy eating through other methods. They found UIFSM reduce health-related absences from school. This research is the only evidence that policymakers can rely on to inform government policy and demonstrate the value of the expensive UIFSM initiative. The findings have been received with huge interest by officials from government departments, parliamentarian and campaigners.

Organisations asking to hear about our findings include School Food Matters, Obesity UK, Jamie Oliver, National Food Strategy, Industry and Parliament Trust, local governments and the national school caterers’association. The research featured in New Statesman, the Child Poverty Action Group journal Poverty, and received widespread national media coverage. It is impacting policy too. It was included in the briefing for the Opposition Day debate on holiday food provision which informed the government’s decision to extend the scheme. A councillor in Newham used the findings to campaign, successfully, to retain the borough’s Universal Free School Meal programme for 35,000 children. The work was cited in a Westminster Hall discussion and a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology Note. The chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food, then-Shadow Minister for Children and Families, and Chief Executive of the Child Poverty Action Group all committed to using the evidence to champion the retention and extension of universal free school meals.The research was used by the School Food Matters charity, who describe it as “persuasive” in encouraging Conservative MPs to support the policy. Its Chief Executive writes: “As a charity dedicated to improving children’s access to healthy, sustainable food during their time at school, we rely on research like this to support our policy and advocacy goals and are pleased to testify to its impact with policymakers.”

This project addresses a fundamental health issue facing our nation, with costly consequences for future generations and governments –the obesity epidemic. Professor Rabe and Dr Holford provide invaluable proof of what works.