Written evidence from School Food Matters (CPM0014)



About School Food Matters


  1. School Food Matters exists to teach children about food and to improve children’s access to healthy, sustainable food during their time at school. We provide fully funded food education programmes to schools. Our experience delivering these programmes informs and strengthens our campaigns, bringing the voices of children, parents and teachers to Government policy.


  1. Our submission to this inquiry is framed around our areas of expertise: school food and issues relating to children’s health and wellbeing. We have focused our response on the call for evidence on the following four questions:




Executive Summary




Measures and targets


What links can be established for children between financial hardship, educational under-achievement, family breakdown and worklessness?


  1. Through our work with children, schools and families, we see the benefits of good nutrition for children. Our anecdotal evidence is now being replicated by academic studies, including those from the University of Leeds and the University of Essex.[1], [2], [3] Pupils who eat a decent, nutritious meal are more likely to perform well academically.


  1. In part this is likely due to better food leading to better behaviour,[4] and children who behave better tend to achieve better academically.[5]


  1. As families struggle financially, they are less likely to be able to provide healthy meals. [6], [7] Therefore, their children are more likely to educationally under-achieve and are more reliant on their schools to provide nutritious food.


  1. We know that at least two in five children in the UK, who are below the poverty line, are not eligible for free school meals (FSM).[8] Many of these children are ineligible because of the £7,400 income cap for those on Universal Credit, or because their families have no recourse to public funds. The cap also disincentivises parents from seeking employment.


  1. For those children who do receive a school meal, there is currently no mechanism rigorous enough to ensure their food meets the School Food Standards. For those who do not receive a school meal, we know that fewer than two in every 100 packed lunches meet nutritional standards.[9]


  1. Where school meals are provided universally, the health and attainment gaps between children who are eligible and those who are not is seen to close.[10], [11]


  1. We would like the Government to acknowledge these links and incorporate this into a comprehensive review of school meals policy.




Joint working


How effectively does the Department for Work and Pensions work with other Government departments, particularly the Department for Education and the Treasury, to reduce child poverty?


How effectively does the Department for Work and Pensions work with local authorities and with support organisations to reduce the numbers of children living in poverty and to mitigate the impact of poverty on children?


  1. We estimated that in 2019/20 the Government spent around £1.4 billion on school food interventions in England and, with effective partnership working between government departments, we have the opportunity to ensure that every pound invested results in good nutrition for children.


  1. Reducing child poverty will require inter-departmental working. The myriad of children’s food interventions has not been well-coordinated between Government departments. DfE administers FSM and the National School Breakfast Programme (NSBP), DHSC administers Healthy Start Vouchers and the School Fruit and Vegetables Scheme (SFVS), while DEFRA administers the School Milk Subsidy Scheme. Underlying many of these programmes, are data from DWP. However, sharing data has not been well facilitated and as a result we are missing the opportunity to ensure the programmes are effective and reaching the families that need support.


  1. Further confusion comes with the eligibility criteria varying between programmes. For example, FSM are universal in Key Stage One and benefits-related afterwards, whereas the NSBP funding is awarded based on schools’ percentage of pupils meeting deprivation index criteria. Currently there is no mechanism in place to ensure policy coherence. Here we have chosen to detail the example of FSM eligibility.


  1. Currently, families can check if their children are eligible for FSM using the Government’s FSM Eligibility Checker. This is an effective mechanism but puts the onus on families, creating an extra hoop for families to jump through to access free school meals.


  1. Since the introduction of Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) – which we vehemently support – families of children moving into key stage 2 may not have registered for benefits-related free school meals when their children started school as infants and may not be aware they are eligible. This adverse effect of UIFSM’s administration sees a twofold blow for children in poverty. Not only will some children not receive the nutritious meals they need, but their schools will not receive the additional Pupil Premium funding designed to address other issues related to disadvantage and to close the attainment gap.


  1. A solution to this problem would be to introduce auto-enrolment to FSM. Auto-enrolment would require DWP and DfE to share data with each other and local authorities. Auto-enrolment is supported by the National Association of Headteachers,[12] and has been previously put to Parliament.[13] Sharing data of this kind has been supported by the Government, for example when an amendment tabled to the Digital Economy Bill 2016-17 suggested providing for councils to share benefit data with schools. The Minister for Digital and Culture at the time, Matt Hancock MP, said ‘it is incredibly important that the law should make it clear that data sharing is permitted, as that removes a reason not to share data.’[14]


  1. Auto-enrolment will remove the stigma experienced by some families when registering at the school office and would allow schools to boost take-up of school meals. Free school meal registration (including Ever 6) attracts Pupil Premium, and since approximately 10% of those eligible for FSM do not register, many schools are missing out on funds designed to close the attainment gap between children from low-income families and their wealthier peers.


  1. School Food Matters would like to see issues like the one highlighted above included in a comprehensive review of school food, to which DWP would need to contribute. We further recommend a ‘School Food Premium’; a compendium of all school food interventions that takes a holistic view of provision, with children at the centre. We believe this would require working across numerous Government departments, including DWP, and would be a strong step towards reducing child poverty.



What would be the merits of having a cross-government child poverty strategy? How well has this worked in the past?


  1. A cross-government child poverty strategy would be meritorious in a number of ways. Since the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 removed the requirement for a child poverty strategy, child poverty has continued to rise. A key element of this has been food insecurity, as brought to prominent public attention during the Covid-19 pandemic and detailed in the Government’s National Food Strategy (Part One).[15] Plans to ‘build back better’ must see be cross-government working and monitoring.


  1. A cross-government strategy would help to tackle systemic problems in a holistic way. The issues with poorly connected food policy have been highlighted by Dr Kelly Parsons, in the 2021 work for the Food Research Collaboration, using hunger and children’s food interventions as examples of Government policy not being well-connected.[16] The only Government department to include hunger and food insecurity in its Single Departmental Plan is FCDO. Given hunger and food insecurity are inherently linked to poverty, a cross-government child poverty strategy would be a good start in addressing this interdepartmental discord.


  1. The Government’s National Food Strategy (Part One) has already made recommendations to address food insecurity amongst disadvantaged children.[17] Already crossing the departmental borders in its recommendations, Part Two is likely to go further. In order for its aims to be met, interdepartmental working will be required. Having a cross-government strategy for child poverty will help in aligning various department’s work so as to prevent the aforementioned disharmony.


  1. The School Food Plan is a good example of representatives from across departments and organisations coming together behind a common strategy. The result of this approach was significant, with three policy changes achieved through joint working: the introduction of universal infant free school meals; compulsory cooking and food education in the national curriculum; new mandatory school food standards. However, it is disappointing that one of the key actions from the School Food Plan remains undone. The chapter ‘What gets measured gets done’ called for Ofsted inspectors to consider how a school promotes healthy lifestyles and for DfE to collect data on take-up of school meals and compliance with the school food standards.[18] Since being implemented, Ofsted has found ‘no reason to believe that [primary] schools are not following the school food standards’.[19] However, with no accountability mechanism in place how can we effectively measure the impact of these important policy changes? Indeed, without data, how can we ensure that our most vulnerable children are receiving the nutrition they need to thrive?


  1. Not only is child poverty a multi-faceted issue, but its diverse corollaries are themselves multi-faceted. Children’s food security is one of these and its various elements require comprehensive address which will mean the involvement of many Government departments. A cross-government child poverty strategy would be far more than meritorious – it is requisite. It’s time for a comprehensive review of school food policy across the UK, which would complement any work on a child poverty strategy.



February 21

[1] Adolphus, K., Lawton, C., Dye, L., (2013) The effects of breakfast on behavior and academic performance in children and adolescents. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, [Online] (7). Available here.

[2] Adolphus, K., Lawton, C., Dye, L., (2019) Associations Between Habitual School-Day Breakfast Consumption Frequency and Academic Performance in British Adolescents. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, [Online] (7). Available here.

[3] Holford, A., Rabe, B., (2020) Impact of the Universal Infant Free School Meal Policy. University of Essex: Institute for Social and Economic Research. Available here.

[4] Colquhoun, D., et al. (2008) Evaluation of Eat Well Do Well Kingston upon Hull’s School Meal Initiative. University of Hull: Institute for Learning. Available here.

[5] Department for Education. (2012). The Impact of Pupil Behaviour and Wellbeing on Educational Outcomes. Available here.

[6] Cade, J., et al. (1999). Costs of a healthy diet: analysis from the UK Women’s Cohort Study. Public Health Nutrition, [Online] 2 (4). Available here.

[7] The Food Foundation. (2016). Force-Fed: Does the food system constrict healthy choices for typical British families? Available here.

[8] Child Poverty Action Group. (2020). Expanding Eligibility for Free School Meals in England. Available here.

[9] Evans, C.E.S., et al. (2020) 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, [Online] 2020; 10 (1). Available here.

[10] Colquhoun, D., et al. (2008) Available here.

[11] Department for Education. (2012). Evaluation of the Free School Meals Pilot. Available here.

[12] National Association of Headteachers. (2018). Auto-enrolment for pupil premium is a ‘must-do’ for government, say NAHT. Available here.

[13] Free School Meals (Automatic Registration of Eligible Children) Bill. 2015. (HC Bill 109, 2015-16). London: The Stationary Office. Available here.

[14] HC Deb (28 November 2016). vol 617, col. 1268. Available here.

[15] Dimbleby, H. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. (2020). The National Food Strategy: Part One. Available here.

[16] Parsons, K., (2021). How connected is national food policy in England? London: Food Research Collaboration. Available here.

[17] Dimbleby, H. (2020). Available here.

[18] Dimbleby, H., Vincent, J., (2013). Department for Education. The School Food Plan. Available here.

[19] Ofsted (2018). Obesity, healthy eating and physical activity in primary schools. Available here.