Child food insecurity and free school meals

Our research has informed a new briefing by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology on child food insecurity and free school meals.

The POSTnote contributors include Professor Birgitta Rabe and Dr Angus Holford from the ESRC Research Centre on Micro-Social Change at the University of Essex who are continuing a body of research looking at the impact of free school meal policies on children’s health and academic outcomes, as well as the difference it makes to families.

The POSTnote states that:

Food insecurity can be defined as a “lack of regular access to enough safe and healthy nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life” (United Nations). In the UK, food insecurity is mostly due to households’ inability to afford nutritious food. Childhood food insecurity is associated with multiple health risks, including malnutrition and obesity, poor dental health, and compromised mental health and wellbeing. 

The Government recognises schools as important for children’s health and diets, both as food providers and educators. Local authorities are required to provide eligible and registered state-funded pupils with nutritious weekday term-time meals. This aims to ensure children are well-nourished, develop healthy eating habits, and can concentrate, learn, and achieve in the classroom. In England, some year groups are covered by universal Free School Meal policies, where every child is entitled to Free School Meals regardless of circumstance. Otherwise, eligibility is means-tested, and pupils are not eligible if their parents earn above a certain threshold or receive multiple benefits.  

The POSTnote outlines trends and associated risk outcomes of child food insecurity and provides an overview of Free School Meals initiatives in England (including eligibility and funding). This briefing also evaluates the evidence for the benefits and challenges for Free School Meals and outlines future policy considerations suggested by stakeholders. 

Key points 

  • In January 2023, the Food Foundation estimated that 24% of households with children were living in food insecurity. 
  • Food insecurity increases mental and physical health risks (including dental decay and obesity) and affects educational and lifetime attainment. 
  • Free School Meals (FSM) initiatives require local authorities to provide eligible pupils with weekday nutritious term-time meals. While it is difficult to measure the effect of FSM on food insecurity directly, FSM can provide health, educational and economic benefits. 
  • Challenges include sufficient funding, achieving high nutritional quality of food, and potential for stigma associated with means-tested FSM eligibility. Means-tested eligibility criteria also prevent some children living in poverty from gaining entitlement. 
  • Stakeholders have suggested future policy considerations including revised funding, improved food quality and monitoring, school-wide cultural changes, and expansion of FSM (including to all children in families receiving universal credit and universal provision to children regardless of circumstance). 

Read more about our research projects here

Read Dr Angus Holford’s piece in The Conversation here


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