School food has a proven track record in reducing child food poverty

By Dr Charlotte Evans, School of Food Science and Nutrition, Faculty of Environment, University of Leeds

Recently Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer, took on the government again, with a petition to provide school meal vouchers in school holidays, which has now been signed by more than a million people.

The vote was defeated by 322 to 261. This was a disappointing result given the long successful history of school food policies in this country, particularly for those on lower incomes. Affordable, high quality school food is important for all children, as well as offering a way to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic, improve educational attainment and reduce inequalities. It is cheap at the price.

School food in the UK has a long history

School food programmes have been an important aspect of government policy since education was made mandatory. In Victorian times charities provided food to children in poverty and then later free and nutritious school food was provided nationally to ensure pupils were fit for war or employment[1]. Children grew taller and were better nourished and standards for school meals were introduced. After many decades of subsidy and standards, support for school food (together with other services) all but disappeared with the new Thatcher government in 1979. Standards were dropped and school meals became much more dependent on market forces. Young children were customers and were regularly served pizza, turkey twizzlers and chips at school. In 2006 after years of discussion, and as a result of the rise in childhood obesity since the 1980s, new mandatory standards were introduced. This was strongly supported by the TV chef Jamie Oliver whose campaign for better quality school meals included creating memorable scenes of carnage as he put all the unsavoury ingredients of a turkey twizzler into a blender in front of shocked 14 year olds.

The nutritional quality of school food has undoubtedly improved in the last 15 years and the food based standards are overseen by the School Food Plan[2]. Additionally, the universal infant free school meals have been introduced for 4-6 year olds in England. However, the number of older children having a school meal remains low, partly due to the cost, and is less than 50% in many schools with the majority of children having a packed lunch which is typically poor quality[3].

Free school meals don’t reach everyone they could help

The number of children in food poverty remains high in this country and not all of those children in low income households are eligible for free school meals. Whilst the proportion of children in poverty is estimated at between 30 and 40%, the proportion of children eligible for free school meals is much lower at 18%.[4]. Furthermore, the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated what was an already desperate situation in terms of the extent of children in poverty in the UK. This was summed up in the scathing report by the United Nations Rapporteur on extreme poverty [5]. Professor Philip Alston reported in his statement that “For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster.” There are currently alarming increases in the number of households claiming Universal Credit and the number of families using food banks. Poverty negatively affects children’s health with higher levels of obesity seen in children living in more deprived households. Tragically, these differences in obesity prevalence between children in households with lowest and highest income have grown from 9% to 15% over 10 years[6]. Good quality school food can help tackle these high obesity rates.

Investments in school food improves health, equity and community

There are signs that the government may consider taking further action and extending the reach of school food in deprived communities to reduce food poverty. The recommendations recently put forward in the National Food Strategy, commissioned by the current government and led by Henry Dimbleby, state that free school meals should be extended to all those families claiming Universal Credit which would cover 30% of school children. The cost of this would be approximately £670million, a small fraction of the amount currently spent on obesity related healthcare. There is ample evidence from many countries across the globe that school food programmes are beneficial in improving education and health, and are highly cost effective. High and middle income countries where school food is free for all or heavily subsidised such as Sweden, Japan and Nigeria have shown that investment in school food leads to improvements in children’s health and equity, as well as benefitting the wider community (World Bank).

High quality and affordable school food successfully improves children’s diets and reduces inequalities. Feeding more children at school and tackling holiday hunger is therefore a priority to reduce food poverty.

The failure to secure holiday time support for those eligible for free school meals was disheartening and severely misjudged the mood in this country. Many united behind Marcus Rashford’s campaign; including hard hit councils, restaurants and cafes who offered free food for families during the October half term holiday.


1. Evans, C. and C. Harper, A history and review of school meal standards in the UK. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 2009. 22(2): p. 89-99.
2. Department of Education. The School Food Plan. 2014; Available from:
3. Evans, C.E.L., et al., A repeated cross-sectional survey assessing changes in diet and nutrient quality of English primary school children’s packed lunches between 2006 and 2016. BMJ Open, 2020. 10(1): p. e029688.
4. Taylor, C., The Reliability of Free School Meal Eligibility as a Measure of Socio-Economic Disadvantage: Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study in Wales. British Journal of Educational Studies, 2018. 66(1): p. 29-51.
5. United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom. 2018.
6. Public Health England (PHE), Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England – 2020 [NS]. 2020.

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