The reality of free school meal provision

New research from The Food Foundation shows what it’s really like to receive free school meals from the perspective of secondary school students, and highlights what schools can do to improve the experience

Recent research, conducted by secondary school pupils for The Food Foundation and University of York, shows that students dependent on the Free School Meals (FSM) allowance struggle to get fruit and veg and often need to spend scarce resources on bottled drinks.
A Better Deal for Free School Meals was conducted by forty-two students aged 11-15 from seven secondary schools across Yorkshire. They were tasked to only spend the FSM allowance each day for a week and purchase the most healthy and sustainable options, whilst recording their purchases.
The amount which children received on their accounts varied, even though the allocation from government is fixed at £2.53. Children received between £2.15 and £2.70.
Children often received this allocation just before lunch so it could not be used in the mid morning break, which can result in young people getting very hungry during the morning lessons, particularly if they have not eaten breakfast. Those students who were able to buy items at breaktime then didn’t have enough left on their allowance to buy a meal at lunchtime. Not having the same choices as their peers can make students feel excluded and stigmatised.

The issue of unclear pricing    

Unclear pricing causes problems in the canteen. Students described feeling under pressure as they approached the counter not knowing if they would be asked to put items back as they were out of their budget. 
Children on FSM rely heavily on the meal deal. Meal deals are priced at the level of the FSM allowance and usually include a main course, pudding and bottled drink. Whilst this encourages students to get a full meal, it means that precious resources are being spent on bottled, often sweetened drinks in plastic bottles (which are rarely recycled). Students reported that the meal deals contained limited E
F vegetables, had few vegetarian options and often salads and fruit weren’t included. On one day in the week, not a single portion of fruit was purchased by any of the young researchers (7 schools and 42 young researchers). In four out of seven schools, no fruit was purchased by the young researchers over the entire week.  
If not opting for the meal deal, students can purchase single, “grab and go” items. Over a third of the lunches purchased included a baguette /sandwich / panini / wrap. A quarter included pizza. Excluding tomato sauce (i.e. on a pizza), over half the lunches purchased by the young researchers were not recorded to contain any vegetables.  

Cost of living crisis

Currently only children from households with an income below £7,400 a year (after tax, before benefits) are eligible for Free School Meals after Year 2; a threshold that has not increased since 2018. This is despite inflation reaching an all-time high in the last twelve months and the most deprived families continuing to feel the impact of the cost-of-living crisis most acutely. This research shows that expanding eligibility of Free School Meals should go hand in hand with driving up school food standards for ensuring children who are on a limited budget can secure a nutritious meal.
Annie Connolly, citizen engagement manager at The Food Foundation, said: “This research gives us a valuable insight into what it’s really like to receive FSM from a student’s perspective. FSM are a crucial nutritional safety net for many young people across England so it’s important we ensure students are getting a balanced meal.  
“About a third of a child’s food intake happens during the school day, and we know many children aren’t able to eat as well at home as a result of the cost of living crisis. If simple changes can be made to improve the standards of school food, whilst also extending eligibility, this could have a hugely positive impact on the health of the next generation.”  

Improving the situation

The Food Foundation is calling for government to mandate that all FSM funding passed from local authorities or Multi-Academy Trusts to schools is ring-fenced for school meal provision.  
They also call for the School Food Standards to be amended to include a requirement to offer two or more portions of vegetables with every meal. This would bring England’s Standards in line with those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Schools should ensure that ‘grab and go’ items include a portion of vegetables. 
The Food Foundation also calls for the roll out a nationwide monitoring system to support compliance with School Food Standards, and to introduce a ‘water-only’ recommendation for all schools to allow more resources to be allocated to food. The government should also ensure schools have adequate funding to provide and maintain water fountains.  
Other recommendations include extending the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme to all year groups, up to and including Year 11, and to provide support for schools to be able to recycle food packaging in line with the Department for Education’s Sustainability and Climate Change strategy.

Improving the student experience

In order to improve the experience of students receiving FSM, schools and caterers should ensure that all items are priced clearly and that up-to-date menus are available online and in school, to enable students to make decisions before the point of purchase.  
They should provide flexibility on when the FSM allowance can be spent throughout the school day, and allow unspent allowance to be accrued on a student’s account.  
They should also reduce disposable food packaging, in order to work towards a more sustainable school food system.

Student feedback

Aliza, 14, pupil from Halifax said: “I absolutely loved taking part in this research as I found it an amazing opportunity to share what we experienced firsthand as students. From this I saw an inequality throughout the food system as the free school meal allowance means that the students have limited choices and can’t have a snack at break time either as this reduced their lunch meal. I also really enjoyed meeting other students from across Yorkshire, but this also showed me how there are problems in other schools too. I believe the government needs to do more to provide students with a healthy, sustainable and tasty free school meal because our health matters for our education and future.”  
Val Clayden, head of key stage 4 at Bedale School, North Yorkshire, said: “I wanted the school to be involved as I was concerned about the number of students on FSM who were not using all their daily allowance due to lack of clear pricing as well as not being able to combine some food combinations. I wanted all students to be able to have a healthy meal which would help them stay well and ensure they had the opportunity to choose a variety of dishes.”
Charlotte Stuart, assistant principal at One In A Million Free School, Bradford, West Yorkshire, said: “After taking part in this project, we no longer sell bottled drinks to our students. We ask students to bring their own reusable bottles in and fill them up with water. At lunchtime we now provide water or juice in jugs with cups.     
“As a result of thinking about sustainability and the impact of plastic in relation to school lunches for the research, two of our Year 11 students took this proposal to the student leadership team and it then became a school policy. This also frees up FSM allowance to be spent on food for the student meals.”