What is the context?
Too many children are missing out on the nutrition they need to thrive. There are stark inequalities in children’s health, depending on their context, such as where they grow up. Ensuring all children have the same access to school food prevents stigma and secures equity.
The current system of means testing children’s access to free school meals is just not working. According to research by Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG):
- 1 in 3 school-aged children in England living in poverty (800,000) miss out on free school meals.
- The main cause is restrictive eligibility criteria.
- Government action in England lags far behind that in Scotland and Wales, where government funding means primary schools are moving towards free school meals for all children.
Access to a nutritious diet has important health and educational benefits for children and young people. Improved diet increases concentration and can potentially decrease health inequalities. It would benefit all children and young people and contribute to a healthier population into adulthood.
All children and young people, regardless of their background, should have the same opportunity to access nutritious school food so that they are ready and able to concentrate and learn. We need a school food system that delivers good food, is fairly funded, and is accessible to all children in school.
ASCL believes that investing in good food for all children of compulsory school age reduces inequalities by improving the health and wellbeing of future generations. It supports children’s school attendance which enables them to reach their educational potential, and so play a full and productive role in the economy and wider society.
However, funding for free school meals to improve the health and life chances of children and young people must not be taken from existing education budgets. Instead, it provides an opportunity for public spending more broadly to reduce inequality and optimise the workforce of the future.
Why are we saying this?
In 2022 Impact on Urban Health
, working with PWC, produced a cost benefit analysis (CBA) of free school meal expansion. The headline findings indicate that every £1 invested in universal provision would generate £1.71 in core benefits1
. The CBA evidence suggests that almost half of the benefit would be realised in increased lifetime earnings and contributions, and 54% would be realised in cost-of-living savings for families. Over a 25-year period, the research estimates a total core benefit of around £41 billion. If we take wider indirect benefits2
into account that figure could be approaching £100 billion.
In their September 2023 report, Child Poverty Action Group
(CPAG) reported that 80% of school staff surveyed said that providing universal free school meals to all school children would reduce child poverty in their school.
1 Core benefits are those arising directly from the children in receipt of FSM. In this CBA they include education, employment, health and nutrition.
2 Wider indirect benefits are generated over and above core benefits and consider the school food economy more broadly.