Could universal free school meals work for you?

It was a big week for free school meals last week, as the evaluation of three national free school meal pilots was finally published. I couldn’t wait to read them, as I’ve been following the pilots’ progress every step of the way.

In those early days back in 2009 when I began working with NewhamDurham and Wolverhampton, they were each already deep into the extensive preparations they needed to make before either extending eligibility for free school meals or starting their offers of free meals for all primary school children that September.

Huge amounts of work took place during those few months: communication activity with caterers, schools, parents, pupils; action to prepare the school kitchens for preparing and serving extra meals; plans for the dining halls to deal with the additional children – the list went on.

Two years later, providing free school meals to all primary pupils in Newham and Durham and extending free school meal entitlement in Wolverhampton have produced some fantastic results. It’s a testament to the hard work of everyone involved, and you can read some of the successes they’ve reported here.

On my visits to schools in all three areas I got to to see the impact for myself.  I talked to pupils, cooks and head teachers who told me how having a free healthy school meal every day was making a difference for children’s eating habits, social skills, concentration and family finances:

  • The little girl who arrived at school unable to eat solid foods, only yoghurt. Thanks to the free meals and support from the school caters and midday supervisors, by December she was enjoying the Christmas meal with all the other children on the final day of term.
  • The mum who warned caterers that her son wouldn’t touch vegetables….he ate the lot at school and really enjoyed them!
  • The parents describing how after having the free meals, their children started asking for new foods at home. They’d tried sweetcorn and beetroot at school and wanted more!
  • The little boy who told me what his packed lunches used to contain – just a jam sandwich and a biscuit, which always left him hungry. Thanks to his free meal he didn’t feel hungry in the afternoon any more. He had so much more energy to play football, and his mum was less worried about money.

For the academic findings of the evaluation, click here. The implementation evaluation has more qualitative results that you’ll want to read if you’re in any way involved with school food.

More and more places are looking at extending free school meals as a way to address child poverty, and to impact on health and social inequalities. Other local authorities where it’s already been tried report similar successful findings. Perhaps its time to join them?

Jo is our Children’s Food Advisor and specialises in free school meals. If you’re thinking of using a similar approach at your school or local authority, Jo can help. Send her an email here

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