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Research Paper

Going universal - the impact of free school lunches on child body weight outcomes


Publication date

Mar 2020


Since September 2014 school lunches – previously free for very low income students - are available to all children in England in their first three years in school free of charge. We draw on data from the National Child Measurement Program (NCMP) to evaluate the effect of switching from targeted to universal free lunch provision on the body weight outcomes of children aged 4-5, showing how the treatment effect evolves over the school year as the cumulative dosage of exposure to free meals increases. By the end of the school year, on average a child exposed to free lunches is 1.2 percentage point more likely to be of ‘healthy weight’ and 0.7 percentage points less likely to be obese, and has body mass index (BMI) that is 4.3% of a standard deviation lower than one who is not. This effect seems driven by children not previously eligible for free meals taking them up, suggesting that the diets of relatively well-off pupils can be improved.


Education, Child Development, Public Policy, and Health

Links; Impact of the Universal Free School Meal policy - project website -

Related publications

  1. The case for universal infant free school meals

    Angus Holford

  2. Free school dinners ‘led to fall in childhood obesity rates’

    Angus Holford and Birgitta Rabe

  3. How did universal infant free school meals affect children's bodyweight?

    Angus Holford and Birgitta Rabe

    1. Education
    2. Child Development
    3. Public Policy
    4. Health


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