News / Children's Food Campaign

Public overwhelmingly supports universal free school meals in primary schools

New public polling to mark International School Meals Day (10 March) reveals the majority of UK adults would like all primary school children to receive free school meals as one way the Government could support families to cope with rising costs of living, with even greater support when the public are told of plans in Scotland and Wales.

Girl enjoying school lunch. Credit: School Food Matters

Girl enjoying school lunch. Credit: School Food Matters

With costs of food and fuel both rising sharply, and amidst rising levels of childhood obesity prevalence and food insecurity, the Government needs to find innovative solutions to support hard working families with children. Offering all primary age children a free lunch in school would be overwhelmingly popular with the public and especially families with school age children, according to recent polling conducted for Children’s Food Campaign by Savanta ComRes1 to mark International School Meals Day on 10th March 2022. The polling reveals that:

  • 66% of UK adults would like the Government to make school meals free for all primary age children. 
  • Public support rises to 72% of UK adults, when asked about this idea in the context of cost-of-living increases, including rising food prices and fuel bills.
  • Public support also increases to 73% when respondents learn about commitments Scotland and Wales have already made to making universal meal provision for all primary school children and asked whether they support the same commitment for England.
  • 85% of respondents with children aged 5-10, and 83% of respondents with children under 5 would like to see the Government make school meals free for all primary age children.

 

Barbara Crowther, Co-ordinator for Children’s Food Campaign says:

“Expanding free school meals to all primary age school children across the whole of the UK could be a valuable and cost-effective lifeline for families at a difficult economic time. It’s utterly perverse that when our education system is meant to be free at the point of access, and when good food is vital for children’s ability to learn, we have such a contorted means-tested system of charging millions of children to eat in school once they turn seven. Scotland and Wales are now forging ahead with primary school meals for all, Northern Ireland is exploring options including universal provision. Children in England are going to be left even further behind unless the Government acts. This polling shows that massive public support across the political spectrum to make this a UK wide policy.” 

Just 25% of respondents disagreed with the idea of making school meals free for all primary school children. The main reason given was the idea of taxpayers paying for school meals if parents can afford to pay for them. However, the Children's Food Campaign believes that the benefits of a universal meal service go beyond immediate affordability - instead it should be seen as investment in the whole learning experience for all pupils regardless of ability to pay, and instead be understood as a core part of educational provision that would deliver wider longer term economic benefits, as has been seen in Sweden and Finland. 

Universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) were introduced in 2013 in England, as a first step towards making school lunches part of core provision in the school system. However, from Year 3 onwards, children in England are only eligible for free school meals if their families have net earnings below £7,400 per year. In the past 12 months, as part of their healthy food national strategies, both Scotland and Wales have committed to extending universal provision to the whole primary age range and are exploring options for expansion in secondary schools. The Northern Ireland assembly is also researching options for expanded entitlement to free meals, including universal provision.

Stephanie Slater, Founder/Chief Executive at School Food Matters says: 

“In one step, the government’s ground-breaking policy of universal infant free school meals normalised healthy eating during those formative years and removed the stigma of means-tested free school meals. It’s time for government to listen to parents and take that next step and make school meals free to all primary school children so that no child misses out on good nutrition.”

The London Borough of Newham is one of only four local authorities in England that already funds its own universal meals scheme for primary school children, an investment for £500 per child each year.

Rokhsana Fiaz OBE, Mayor of Newham, says: 

“Here in Newham we fund a universal meals scheme, Eat For Free, that ensures all primary children receive a free school meal. Guaranteeing this scheme is part of my commitment to making Newham the best place for children and young people to grow up.

 
“The benefits seen locally are clear and wide reaching, from the health and well-being of children and directly supporting families with the cost of living, to supporting whole class performance and driving the local economy.  All children, families and communities across the whole of the UK should be benefiting in the same way as children in Newham do.”

New research by Child Poverty Action Group into the cost of the school day with over 4,000 schoolchildren in England along with parents and teachers, has also exposed inequalities in the current school meal system, which leaves many children in poverty without access to a free meal, and sometimes limiting nutritious options available to those who are eligible, and creating additional stigma. Their report also makes recommendations to Government to move progressively to a universal school meal offer, providing all pupils with equal access to a healthy, nutritious meal .

Kate Anstey, Cost of the School Day Programme Manager for Child Poverty Action Group says: 

“One million children in poverty in the UK are not eligible for free school meals because the income threshold is so low. That isn’t right – not in normal times, and certainly not when living costs are surging. All the evidence shows free school meals help children to learn and support parents to make work pay. And as the poll results show, most people want a school meal each day to be a basic entitlement for every young child. The government must extend entitlement to all school-children as a matter of priority and give struggling families one less thing to worry about.”

The polling was done as the most recent data from the Food Foundation reveals continued high levels of food insecurity amongst families with young children, up to 12.1% of all households, compared to 11% in July 2021. This represents a total of 2 million children who live in households who do not have access to a healthy and affordable diet and are at greater risk of diet-related diseases and poor child growth and development. 4.9% of parents whose children are not registered for free school meals, have also reported greater fears about being able to feed their children school lunches, up from just 1.1% in summer 2020.

Yumna Hussen, 17, a Children’s Right to Food (CR2F) Ambassador from Birmingham, says: 

“Everyone should have access to healthy and affordable food in schools and across the UK. To build back better post-pandemic, we need a healthier generation of young people, who are less likely to suffer from poor performance at school, child obesity, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses. Not only will universal school meals provide children with at least a meal a day, it is also necessary to eliminate the stigma and shame surrounding food poverty. Scotland and Wales have committed to universal school meals for primary-school aged children, what is stopping us from committing to high quality food for young people from all ages?”

Molly Lewis, a young campaigner with Bite Back 2030, says:

"Young people like me are in school for 190 days a year, so it's really important that schools help set the stage for child health. We need hot, nutritious food to be available every day, and for every student - no matter where they live. Only with access to fair and high quality nutrition can we as students achieve our full potential."

The poll findings are released to coincide with the 10th International School Meals Day, which celebrates good nutritious school food for all children, regardless of their background and circumstances. The day brings together teachers and students, policy makers, school cooks, chefs, food and nutrition professionals, schools and communities, charities, businesses and health professionals from around the world to talk about the importance of school meals and their impact on wellbeing and education. In 2022 the theme is Celebrating School Meals, sharing history, ideas and stories of past, present and future. 

A healthy meal for every child by 2030 is the rallying call of a growing movement of countries joining the School Meals Coalition, which is seeking to ensure healthy nutrition is at the heart of national back to school strategies following huge disruption of school feeding programmes due to the Covid pandemic. Countries already offering free school meals to all state school pupils include Finland, Sweden, Estonia & India, along with the US states of California and Maine where laws passed in 2021 have made free school meals a permanent commitment for every student regardless of ability to pay.

Notes:

1. Savanta ComRes interviewed 2,230 UK adults aged 18+ online between 25-27 February 2022. Data were weighted to by key demographics including age, gender and region to be representative of UK adults. Savanta ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables are available at www.comresglobal.com.

 

Press Coverage:

Exclusive by Serina Sandhu in inews: https://inews.co.uk/news/universal-free-school-meals-backed-lunch-money-parents-responsibility-1506956

Published 10 Mar 2022

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.

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