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Food insecurity can be defined as a “lack of regular access to enough safe and healthy nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life” (United Nations). In the UK, food insecurity is mostly due to households’ inability to afford nutritious food. Childhood food insecurity is associated with multiple health risks, including malnutrition and obesity, poor dental health, and compromised mental health and wellbeing. 

The Government recognises schools as important for children’s health and diets, both as food providers and educators. Local authorities are required to provide eligible and registered state-funded pupils with nutritious weekday term-time meals. This aims to ensure children are well-nourished, develop healthy eating habits, and can concentrate, learn, and achieve in the classroom. In England, some year groups are covered by universal Free School Meal policies, where every child is entitled to Free School Meals regardless of circumstance. Otherwise, eligibility is means-tested, and pupils are not eligible if their parents earn above a certain threshold or receive multiple benefits.  

This POSTnote outlines trends and associated risk outcomes of child food insecurity and provides an overview of Free School Meals initiatives in England (including eligibility and funding). This briefing also evaluates the evidence for the benefits and challenges for Free School Meals and outlines future policy considerations suggested by stakeholders. 

Key points 

  • In January 2023, the Food Foundation estimated that 24% of households with children were living in food insecurity. 
  • Food insecurity increases mental and physical health risks (including dental decay and obesity) and affects educational and lifetime attainment. 
  • Free School Meals (FSM) initiatives require local authorities to provide eligible pupils with weekday nutritious term-time meals. While it is difficult to measure the effect of FSM on food insecurity directly, FSM can provide health, educational and economic benefits. 
  • Challenges include sufficient funding, achieving high nutritional quality of food, and potential for stigma associated with means-tested FSM eligibility. Means-tested eligibility criteria also prevent some children living in poverty from gaining entitlement. 
  • Stakeholders have suggested future policy considerations including revised funding, improved food quality and monitoring, school-wide cultural changes, and expansion of FSM (including to all children in families receiving universal credit and universal provision to children regardless of circumstance). 


POST is grateful to Stephanie Hartgen-Walker for researching this briefing, to the Nuffield Foundation for funding her parliamentary fellowship, and to all contributors and reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing. For further information on this subject, please contact the co-author, Dr Clare Lally. 

Members of the POST Board* 

Ruth Maisey, Nuffield Foundation* 

Dr Catherine Dennison, Nuffield Foundation* 

Department for Education* 

Department of Work and Pensions* 

Bite Back 2030 

Sean Turner, School Food Matters* 

Professor Rebecca O’Connell, University of Hertfordshire* 

Dr Patrycja Piotrowska, University of Leicester 

Katie Morris, Durham University Law School 

Dr Gurpinder Lalli, University of Wolverhampton* 

Dr Heather Ellis, University of Sheffield* 

Mark Heffernan, Impact on Urban Health 

Pete Whitehead, Magic Breakfast 

Ali Cooper, Barnardo’s* 

Darren Squires, Veg Cities 

Andy Jolley, former school governor 

Dr Andrew Williams, Cardiff University 

Dr Jennie Parnham, Imperial College London* 

Dr Judi Kidger, University of Bristol 

Dr Annie Connolly, The Food Foundation* 

Zoe McIntyre, The Food Foundation* 

Kate Anstey, Child Poverty Action Group* 

Georgina Burt, Child Poverty Action Group* 

Professor Maria Bryant, University of York 

Myles Bremner, Bremner & Co 

Dr Angus Holford, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex* 

Professor Birgitta Rabe, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex* 

Professor Donald Bundy, Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition; London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine* 

Dr Juliana Cohen, Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition; Harvard University 

Professor Mary Brennan, Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition; University of Edinburgh Business School 

Dr Lesley Drake, Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition; Imperial College London 

Dr Samrat Singh, Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition; Imperial College London 

Olivia Lam, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health* 

* denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing. 

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