Our children spend 190 days a year at school, so it’s vital that what they eat and drink is healthy and nutritious, that all children can access their right to healthy food with dignity, and that no child is too hungry to learn. This page summarises what’s happening on school food in the UK and how you can get involved.
What’s on the table for school food in the UK?
Healthy school food has a big impact on a child, from improving their concentration and ability to learn (because who can focus on an empty stomach!?) to establishing healthier diets through veg packed lunches. But how does school food in the UK work – who gets what, where, and how?
Universal free school meals: In England, Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) are currently provided for 1.25 million children aged between 3 – 7. The Scottish Government currently provide meals for all children in Years P1 to P5 and will extend this to all primary school students over the coming two years. The Welsh Government provides free school breakfast and has committed to providing universal free school meals for primary school students by 2024, starting with youngest pupils. Five London Boroughs currently provide all primary pupils with hot lunches and, thanks to funding from Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, all primary school meals will be free for a year from September 2023. We want all nations, areas, and schools to Say Yes though.
Means-tested free school meals: The family earnings threshold for eligibility in England and Wales for free school meals is £7,400 (after tax, before benefits), which means an estimated 800,000 school children living in poverty remain excluded. In Scotland the threshold is £7,920. In Northern Ireland the threshold for eligibility is £14,000. The Feed the Future coalition, of which Sustain’s Children’s Food Campaign is a member, is calling for urgent uplift of thresholds to ensure no child in poverty is left behind.
Paid for meals: The cost of a school meal varies depending on the school but on average it costs between £2 – 3 at both primary and secondary schools. During the current cost of living crisis, school and caterers have been warning of increases in school meal debts, decrease in numbers of paid for meals being taken and children arriving at school without eating breakfast.
Breakfast clubs: Breakfast clubs are available across the UK to ensure children start their day with a healthy meal. In England, the government’s National School Breakfast scheme is supporting 2500 schools with 75% of the costs of providing breakfast. Sustain members like Magic Breakfast support a host of others, as do many local authorities.
Holiday provision: Children need to eat 365 days of the year, not just in term time. Both Wales and Scotland have committed to holiday support through a mix of activities, vouchers, and/or direct payments. In England the Holiday Activities and Food Programme means eligible families in England able to access food through holiday activities until the end of 2023. However, this only covers 4 days per week for 6 weeks across the year, and eligibility for free places is restricted in the same way as free school meals. Many councils are using current Household Support Funds to supplement this with additional programmes, vouchers and cash payments. Support in Northern Ireland is only until March 2023 currently.
School food standards: State funded schools in the UK must meet the School Food Standards set by each nation, although they remain only voluntary for some academies in England. School food standards seek to ensure healthy nutritional levels not just at lunch but across the school day. However, there is no mandatory inspection system so whilst some schools dish up amazing food, others are able to serve processed food, and sugary treats with few repercussions. Our member Soil Association’s Food For Life scheme supports schools to serve up healthy, well sourced food. Meanwhile research has also indicated that 98% of packed lunches don’t comply with School Food Standards, so there is a lot of work to be done. The School Food Plan also focuses on the quality of school food.
What needs to happen to improve school food?
Over the past 20 years, The Children’s Food Campaign has campaigned for a host of changes, helping to bring about a revolution in many schools. This includes the introduction of universal infant free school meals, new school food standards, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy which has funded the National Breakfast Programme, and support for children during holidays – both during the pandemic and beyond.
We’re not done yet though, because our children deserve even more, so here’s what we’re working on now:
- Say Yes – our campaign calling for school food for all children from nursery to sixth form by 2030. Just like books, desks and chairs, we think school food should be free for every child so we want to see an end to means-testing of school food and progressive roll out of ufsm by 2030.
- Feed the Future – a collaboration led by the Food Foundation, School Food Matters, Bite Back 2030, Impact on Urban Health and many others to support urgent and immediate uplift to the threshold for free school meals in England so all children living in poverty can access a free school meal.
- School Food Review Group - We are part of a wider coalition calling for a root and branch review of school food, including quality, procurement, monitoring of standards, funding and entitlement.
- Parents’ Jury – Working with parents to have their voices heard on the food issues that matter to their children – from school food to advertising
- Healthy school food for the planet - Working with local councils and food partnerships to shake up school menus and make them better for both the pupils and the planet.
How can you support better school food?
Access to Food
- The superpowers of universal free school meals
- Public support for universal free school meals
- Child food insecurity levels double in past year
- Health leaders call on PM to act on child food insecurity
- Other ways to improve children’s access to food 365 days a year
- Achieving everyone’s Right to Food
- What is the cost of the school day?
- Feed the Future campaign
- Ensuring a Magic Breakfast for all
Quality of Food
- School Food Standards - England
- Healthy Eating in Schools - Scotland
- Food and Drink in Schools - Wales
- School Food Plan resources
- Soil Association Food For Life in Schools
- Ensuring good food is on the public plate
Food Education Organisations
Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.
Support our campaign
Your donation will help us champion children’s rights, parent power and government action to improve the food environment children grow up in.