Free school meals ‘cut obesity and help reading skills’ in England, study finds
05/02/24 - The Guardian
Labour is facing calls from MPs to back the provision of free school meals for all primary school children in England, after a new study found evidence that it reduces obesity and boosts reading skills.
Levels of obesity were reduced by 7% to 11% among reception children in the four London boroughs that have already adopted the policy, according to the study seen by the Observer. For children in year six, who had been given free school meals for their entire time in primary school, there was a 5-8% reduction.
The study, by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, found that apart from the cost of living help to parents, there was an associated increase in reading. It suggested that by the age of 11, the impact was equivalent to “approximately two weeks’ additional progress in school”.
It also found that making free school meals universal also increased their take-up by those who had already been entitled to them by 8%, possibly because it changed school culture and the stigma around having them. It appeared to lead to one in three children eating a school lunch for the first time.
In England, all reception, year one and year two children are entitled to free lunches. Blanket free school meals have now been rolled out by London mayor Sadiq Khan across the capital until next year. All primary school children in Wales and Scotland are due to receive free school meals from this year. Offering free meals to all state primary school pupils would cost about £1bn a year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
A series of Labour MPs called for the national rollout of free meals. Stephen Timms, the Labour chair of the work and pensions select committee, said the policy was in place and working within his London borough. “The policy has been hugely popular among parents, and the research now shows that it is making a real difference to children’s health and learning,” he said. “I welcome the decision by the mayor of London to extend the policy London-wide. It should be rolled out nationally, too.”
Kim Johnson, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, said that in her city, an average of 11 children in a class of 30 live in poverty. “Access to healthy, nutritious food is a necessity for children to thrive,” she said. “I have long supported the NEU’s No Child Left Behind campaign to roll out universal free school meals to all primary and secondary pupils ... to ensure that hunger doesn’t prevent children from learning, from reaching their full potential.”
Sharon Hodgson, chair of the all-party group on school food, said ministers had had evidence since 2013 on the benefits of such a scheme. “Universalism breaks the stigma of means-tested free school meals and breaks the cycle of inequalities that exist outside the school gates being reproduced in the dining hall,” she said.
“School food is the best public health policy we have at our disposal. With it we have the opportunity to reach every child in the UK with hot, healthy, nutritious meals. That is why I have been calling for universal free school meals for over 14 years.”
Khan said he had “personal experience” of the difference free school meals can make. “Delivering these meals to all state primary schoolchildren in London has been one of my proudest moments as mayor,” he said.
“It has been fantastic to hear from teachers about how much better pupils are performing this year and also how much families have benefited, with parents not having to worry about how to feed their children. As this study shows, providing all children with the offer of a nutritious meal during the school day helps to improve health and enable pupils to focus on their schoolwork, rather than worry about being hungry.”
Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, has pledged to have breakfast clubs in every primary school, funded from the abolition of non-dom tax status. However, the party has no plans to expand free school lunches.
Researchers examined the impact of expanding the policy to all primary school children by studying four London boroughs – Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Newham and Islington – which have their own schemes.
“There are lots of long-term benefits that we’d expect, such as an improvement in reading ability, even at the end of primary school,” said Dr Angus Holford, the study’s co-author.
“Other evidence suggests this will persist into a benefit in lifetime earnings. Even if these effects on obesity prevalence don’t fully persist into adulthood, even delaying the onset of obesity, or reducing your total lifetime duration of obesity, still reduces the risk of developing later diseases.”