Why universal free school meals is the right move

Published on: 
23 February 2023
Written by: 

Kate Anstey

UK Cost of the School Day project lead

The London mayor’s announcement this week that all primary school pupils will get a free school meal for at least one year is a huge step forward. At Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) we estimate that 210,000* children in poverty in London do not currently qualify for free school meals because the national income threshold for eligibility is shamefully low. The Mayor’s scheme will go a significant way towards addressing this problem by providing a daily hot meal to around 90,000 of those children – with the other 120,000 being children in poverty in secondary school.

As well as ensuring primary kids in poverty get a good lunch, the intervention will mean thousands more primary school pupils and families who are on low incomes but not in poverty, have one less cost to worry about as they struggle with soaring prices.

We know from our Cost of the School Day project in schools that many families are struggling with school dinner money debt – with parents being chased by schools and children being denied food as a result.

We’ve heard through the project from over 8,000 pupils and 1,300 parents in England. Many pupils have told us that they would prefer a hot school meal or previously had them, but their parents have moved them on to packed lunch because they can no longer afford school food at around £440 per year per child. Kids also report that they see classmates unable to afford food and going without. 

'Yes there have been occasion when I couldn’t afford for either of them to have dinner money so they have to bring snacks from home or go without.' (Parent)

With a universal approach to free meals, we can catch all of these children – so that no one in need slips through the net. 

The Mayor’s move will also reduce the stigma around free school meals which – despite the move to cashless systems in the lunch hall – remains a problem. 

It is clear from our Cost of the School Day project that pupils can identify which children are eligible for free school meals. For instance:

  • Most obviously, kids on free lunch don’t always have access to the same menus and food options as their peers. 
  • Children tell us that they notice differences at the checkout – rather blatantly sometimes “FSM” appears on the dinner hall till. 
  • Sometimes children who get free lunch aren’t required to use the biometric fingerprint system to pay for their meal while others are.  
  • Kids report that kitchen staff will sometimes tell them what budget they have left or point out when they have gone over their limit, meaning children must put food back. 
  • On school trips, children who qualify for free meals are given a bag of food from the school in front of classmates.

The shame kids feel about being identifiable in this way is palpable in our conversations in schools:

'Kind of… when we have school trips we can tell who gets free school dinners… sometimes how they act, they don’t speak as much because people are talking about stuff they don’t have, it makes them sad.' (year 5 pupil)

'Free school meal children are treated differently. She is told she can’t buy certain foods on free school meals. It’s like wearing a big badge saying "I’m poor". It’s heart breaking to watch her come home hungry as she would rather not go into the lunch hall and have peers laugh at her.' (Parent)

If we stop income-related segregation at lunchtime, with children all sitting down to enjoy the same food as each other, paid for in the same way and eaten in the same place, we can end the damaging disparity of experience we know children face at lunchtime and make school, as it is intended to be, a place where everyone can thrive. This is an investment that’s good for all children but has the greatest impact on those facing hardship. Indeed, the research shows when free meals are available to every child, it results in significant increases in uptake because there is no longer stigma or administration associated with free meals.

So Sadiq Khan has made the right move for primary school families in London. Now we need ministers to respond to public support for free school meals with a national shift towards universal free school meals – so that all children get the same chance to thrive in school. 

Note: *The 210,000 refers to school-age children in poverty in London who are currently not eligible for the two national schemes of universal infant free school meals and means-tested free school meals. It does not include children covered by schemes in London local authorities that have funded universal provision using money from their own budgets.