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Are Free School Meals the answer to food insecurity?

26th Oct 2023 - 04:00
A recent parliamentary research paper looked at whether Free School Meals initiatives could help tackle rising food insecurity among young people. Written by Stephanie Hartgen-Walker and Clare Lally, it frames the current school food debate.

In January the Food Foundation estimated 24% of households with children were living with food insecurity, pointing out that this increases mental and physical health risks (including dental decay and obesity) and affects educational and lifetime attainment.

Part of the answer could be greater provision of Free School Meals (FSM), which can provide health, educational and economic benefits. Despite the evidence, though, it is difficult to directly measure the effect of FSM on food insecurity.

The reasons for this include funding, the ability to serve food of a high enough nutritional quality, and the potential for stigma associated with means-tested FSM eligibility. Also, some children living in poverty may not receive FSM if they do not meet the means-tested criteria.

Some stakeholders suggest future policy considerations should include revised funding, improved food quality and monitoring, school-wide cultural changes, and expansion of FSM – either to all schoolchildren in families receiving Universal Credit or to all pupils regardless of circumstances.

To make any decision, we first need to understand better the many different aspects of the Free School Meals issue.

Household food insecurity in the UK

UK food insecurity is the inability to afford nutritious food, rather than any issue of scarcity. The Department for Work and Pensions provides data on UK household food security.

In 2021-22, 7% of people (4.7m) in the UK were in food insecure households, with a further 6% reporting marginal food security. Of households with children, 12% were food insecure, with 5% living with very low food security.

Although the DWP figure has remained relatively stable over the past three years, other measures suggest an increase. This may be due to differences in data collection, time-periods, how food insecurity is assessed, and disruption from the pandemic.

According to the Food Foundation, for instance, the percentage of households with children experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity doubled between January 2022 and 2023 to 24.4% (4m children).

Food insecurity rates are generally higher for households receiving income-related benefits, particularly Universal Credit (UC), estimated at 31% (DWP) to 49% (Food Foundation) in 2023. Many people in receipt of UC also work, and the Food Foundation estimates 38.6% of all food insecure households to be in employment.

Food banks

Food bank use has risen over the past decade. The Trussell Trust, which operates about 60% of food banks, provided almost 3m three-day emergency food parcels in 2022-23, a 37% increase on the previous year. It included provisions to 760,000 first-time users, with a third of food parcels provided for children. Food bank use is considered an underestimate of food insecurity, as not all food banks are included in statistics and less than half of severely food insecure people use them.

Financial hardship and nutrition

Families typically compromise spending on food before other less adjustable essential living costs such as rent. In 2021-22, UK households in the lowest income quintile needed to spend 50% of their disposable income to afford a healthy diet, as described in the Government-recommended Eatwell Guide.

The Guide says healthy foods are nutritious, and include wholegrains, fruit, vegetables and fish, while unhealthy foods are often ultra-processed, low in fibre, and high in fat, sugar and salt. On average, healthier foods are twice as expensive per calorie than less healthy foods. Food insecure households are more likely to buy cheaper, unhealthy foods.

To avoid children wasting food, parents may opt for child-marketed foods and while parents may believe them to be healthy choices, 92% of yogurts and 93% of breakfast cereals marketed to children have medium or high sugar content, according to Action on Sugar.

Government restrictions on promotions of unhealthy foods and drinks, including banning unhealthy food multi-buy deals, have been delayed until October 2025.

Rising cost of living

Rising living costs have further exacerbated food insecurity and in February charity Barnardo’s found that 23% of surveyed parents struggled to provide sufficient food for their child due to the cost of living.

And a Food Foundation survey in January found 42% of food insecure households bought fewer vegetables, 54% bought less fish, and 57% bought less fruit than in the previous month because of rising prices. Foods such as microwave meals are also more likely to be bought by households in financial hardship because they save time, require only small storage or cooking facilities, and cut energy costs.

Health risks of childhood food insecurity

Food insecure children are at higher risk of being under or overweight, largely due to unaffordability of healthy diets. Undernutrition can manifest as short stature, which is more prevalent in deprived children.

The Government’s Food and Levelling Up Strategies aim to cut diet-related health inequalities and to halve child obesity by 2030. In England, one in three children leave primary school overweight or obese, with children in the most deprived regions at over twice the risk of those least deprived. Obesity increases risks of related diseases, including type 2 diabetes, and respiratory, musculoskeletal and liver diseases.

Growing up with food insecurity can teach children to eat when food is available rather than when hungry. This can affect the body’s ability to regulate hunger signals, making it difficult to lose weight.

Children from deprived backgrounds are also more likely to have poor dental health. Consuming sugary foods and drinks, more common in food insecure households, can increase the risk of dental decay. Food is often prioritised over hygiene products (such as toothbrushes) when households cannot afford both. As well as pain and infection, dental decay causes difficulties with eating, sleeping, playing, socialising, wellbeing, and physical growth. It can cause school absence, affecting educational attainment.

And household food insecurity is associated with worse childhood mental health after adjustment for other social risks. This includes hyperactivity and inattention, mood and anxiety disorders and aggression. Children can be aware of parents’ stress around food and those who worry about food show higher rates of negative emotion and self-harm compared with their food-secure peers.

Government commitments to food in schools

The Government recognises schools as important for children’s health and diets, both as food providers and educators. The 2013 School Food Plan included revised School Food Standards for nutritious food, and introduced Universal Infant Free School Meals. The 2022 Government Food Strategy and the 2022 Levelling Up White Paper recognised existing diet-related health inequalities as a barrier to equal opportunities across the UK.

This is what they set out to do:

• Encourage schools to publish statements for their ‘whole school approach’ to food and provide funded training (£200,000) for governors to support this

• Ensure greater compliance with School Food Standards through collaboration between the Department for Education and the Food Standards Agency

• Allocate £5m funding for a ‘school cooking revolution’, enabling every child to leave secondary school knowing how to cook six recipes (this pledge has now been abandoned)

Free School Meals

In England, the Government requires local authorities to provide eligible, state-funded pupils with a weekday nutritious term-time meal.

Schools vary in how FSM programmes operate, from how caterers procure food to how registered pupils are identified. Many use e-payment systems for all pupils, which automatically credit accounts with a lunchtime allowance. This typically resets daily, which may mean that any underspend or missed meals cannot be carried over.

FSM eligibility varies across the UK (see box). Some year groups are covered by universal FSM policies, where every child is entitled to FSM regardless of circumstance. Universal schemes include:

• Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM): Reception to Year 2

• Universal Primary Free School Meals (UPFSM): Reception to Year 6

Otherwise, eligibility is means-tested, which requires parents to earn less than the threshold or not receive multiple benefits. Unlike universal initiatives, pupils must be registered to receive FSM, requiring parents to claim.

The Mayor of London introduced UPFSM in all state-funded schools in London for a year that started in September. Five London boroughs already offered UPFSM, three of these have reallocated their current UPFSM costs to extend FSM provisions across more school years.

Eligibility trends

In England, the number of children eligible for means-tested FSM has increased since 2017-18, peaking at 23.8% (over 2m) in January. But eligibility rates vary regionally, lowest in the South East (18.8%) and highest in the North East (30.4%). The Child Poverty Action Group estimated this year that a third of school-age children living in poverty (900,000) did not meet the requirements to receive FSM.

Government pilot expansion schemes

Between 2009-2011, the Government piloted extended FSM entitlement and UPFSM in three local authorities. These schools were compared to schools in similar areas by the DfE in 2012. This pilot introduced extra initiatives at the same time, therefore outcomes cannot be attributed to FSM specifically.

Extended eligibility improved take-up for newly eligible pupils, however universal eligibility improved take-up for both newly and previously eligible pupils. Overall attainment improved under UPFSM, with greater gains for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or those with lower prior attainment.

FSM eligibility as a proxy for disadvantage

FSM eligibility is generally considered a reliable indicator of socio-economic disadvantage within academic research and government policy and it reveals a ‘disadvantage gap’, whereby non-eligible pupils outperform eligible pupils academically. In 2022, 47% of FSM-eligible pupils achieved a standard pass (grades 4-9 or A*-C) in GCSE English and Mathematics, compared to 75% of ineligible pupils.

Funding for FSM initiatives

In England, the provision of UIFSM and means-tested FSM costs approximately £1.4bn a year. The one-year London emergency UPFSM scheme is costing £130m.

While UIFSM is funded through a specific grant, funding for means-tested FSM derives from the wider Dedicated Schools Grant, the main source of income for local authority school budgets, and varies regionally. FSM funding is not ring-fenced, meaning actual FSM spending varies across schools. The Government has valued FSM at £480 per pupil this academic year. With 2m pupils known to be eligible, this produces an estimate of £960m in means-tested FSM funding.

Benefits of FSM provision

It is difficult to isolate outcomes of means-tested FSM due to additional demographic differences between eligible and non-eligible groups. Universal initiatives can be evaluated by comparing cohorts before and after introduction, or by comparing similar schools with and without initiatives. While FSM can mitigate food insecurity, direct evidence is limited. The extent of FSM benefits can be influenced by the nutritional quality of meal provisions.

Academic studies identify a link between improved nutrition and increased academic performance. Healthy foods are associated with better learning, concentration, reasoning, memory, self-control and behaviour in children and adolescents, in addition to small drops in absences.

Economic outcomes

FSM provision can reduce pressure on family budgets, which may improve household food intake. For 2023-24, UIFSM funding has risen from £2.41 to £2.53 per meal in line with the means-tested rate. To reflect inflation measured by the Consumer Prices Index it should be £2.87 per meal. One in seven secondary pupils report their FSM lunchtime allowance is not sufficient for a full meal.

With inflation particularly high for food and energy costs, this shortfall in funding puts further pressure on school budgets. Some schools and local authorities have compromised food quality in favour of cheaper options, changed to cheaper food service methods, or increased the price of food for paying pupils.

Take-up and pupil premium

Schools and local authorities aim to identify and register all those entitled to FSM, but despite this not every eligible child receives FSM. Under-registration rates have been estimated at 11% (up to 250,000 eligible children). Barriers to take-up include a lack of promotion of FSM, registration requirements, stigma, and food quality and options.

Schools can claim additional pupil premium funding for each pupil both eligible and registered for FSM. Therefore, under-registration results in schools receiving less pupil premium funding than they are entitled to. This may be a further risk for universal FSM initiatives, as registration is unnecessary to receive universal FSM, but necessary for pupil premium.

Simplifying registration or auto-enrolment can help. Sheffield City Council introduced auto-enrolment in 2016, registering a further 6,400 eligible children netting an extra £3.8m pupil premium.

But young people also say receiving FSM can cause them to feel ashamed and identified as poor. This stigma often worsens as children age. Many schools make efforts to maintain confidentiality, such as through electronic systems, but FSM constraints can make pupils visible: they may have smaller lunches or eat the same food every day to avoid accidentally exceeding their allowance.

Food quality and options

School Food Standards exist, but one 2022 study found 64% of UK pupils’ total school-provided lunch calories came from ultra-processed foods. This can negate the nutritional benefits of school meals, and the Government has proposed greater accountability in the Levelling Up White Paper, with school food monitoring pilots underway.

Many secondary school pupils find portion sizes too small. Taste, unfamiliar food, and the inability to eat with friends or make culturally safe choices can reduce take-up and encourage less nutritious alternatives.

Policy considerations

Extending FSM eligibility - The DfE says the current criteria ‘enable children to benefit, while remaining affordable and deliverable for schools’.

The 2020-21 National Food Strategy recommended increasing the post-tax earnings threshold to £20,000 to benefit 82% and 71% of children in DWP-defined ‘very low’ and ‘low’ food security, respectively. This would be expensive - £544m annually for the first three years.

In November 2022, over 150,000 healthcare professionals signed an open letter to Government urging FSM expansion to all families in receipt of UC and related benefits. With almost half of UC households in moderate or severe food insecurity, this aims to protect child health, improve nutrition, and avoid a ‘health debt’ in later years.

LACA, the leading professional body representing the school food sector, considers an immediate roll-out of this extension to be feasible and without the need for large changes to infrastructure.

Universal approaches - Academic and NGO stakeholders have advocated universal school meals to reduce diet-related inequalities and improve nutritional intake for the majority of pupils. They note that while nutrition is especially crucial in early childhood, secondary pupils are at another important development period during puberty. Universal approaches can increase take-up for previously eligible pupils by reducing barriers of stigma and registration.

One academic study suggests that UIFSM initiatives can reduce children’s bodyweights to a healthier level, largely through the replacement of packed lunches for children ineligible under means-testing. Another study found small reductions in school absences. Universal FSM could also provide affordable healthier choices in schools with open-gate policies, where it is currently often cheaper to purchase fast food outside.

But universal provision is costly. The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that universalism (reception through secondary) would cost £2.5bn a year. It also carries ‘deadweight costs’ (meals that parents would have otherwise paid for), which reduce cost-effectiveness.

Food quality and monitoring

Many stakeholders suggest improved monitoring and accountability of School Food Standards, encouraging take-up and ultimately aiding the school food economy.

Some NGOs want school food quality and environment criteria in Ofsted assessments, while others call for a wider review of school funding with a long-term vision for a thriving school catering sector. Many identified the need for FSM budgets to reflect food and operations costs.

Many organisations and campaigners suggest improved transparency, accountability and consistency in funding and procurement.

A ‘whole school’ approach to food

This recognises school food as more than hunger and promotes a healthy culture around food through education and provision using cooking and growing as ways to teach subjects. It places value on school food staff and involvement of pupils and the wider community.

Adopting an evidence-based whole school approach to food is raised by many NGO stakeholders as a way to ensure consistency between food education and culture and food offered in schools. This approach is also supported in the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper.

Many stakeholders say the priorities of school headteachers make the most impact in the success of this approach.

Some stakeholders suggest more eating and socialisation spaces or ‘grab and go’ systems as particularly positive for secondary pupils, which could further help dining hall capacity in schools with both primary and secondary pupils. The opportunity to work with pupils, caterers and local agriculture is also noted, particularly with respect to supporting local and sustainable food systems.

Written by
Edward Waddell