account arrow-down-linearrow-down-small arrow-downarrow-download arrow-left-small arrow-leftarrow-link arrow-rightarrow-upaudio-less-volume audio-not-playing audio-plus-volume audio awarded books calendar close-modal closedate delete document education emailevent Facebookhamburger impact instagramjustice linkedin location-outline location opinion page phonepinterestplay pluspost preview project reports search-bigsearch-old search share star-full star-open startime twitterwelfare youtube zoom-in zoom-out

Universal free school meals winning in the fight against childhood obesity

By Nuffield Foundation

Since 2014, the government has provided free school meals to all four to seven year olds in English primary schools. New Nuffield-funded research has found this policy has been helping to reduce childhood obesity rates.

A quarter of all UK children are overweight or obese when they start school aged 4 or 5, rising to one third of all children by the time they leave primary school aged 11.

The researchers followed the BMI data collected by the National Child Measurement Programme from children in 16,000 primary schools, to examine the impact of the nutritionally-balanced, maximum 530 calories, universally free school dinner, introduced by the Coalition government in 2014.

The new healthy school meal, prompted by campaigns from Jamie Oliver, costs £437 per child per year and the universal policy has hugely reduced the use of home-packed lunches for Britain’s youngest school children. Previous research in 2010 found that the average children’s lunchboxes weighed in at 624 calories, and two thirds of lunchboxes contained at least two items of high calorie nutritionally-empty foods like sweetened drinks, crisps and chocolate bars.

Dr Birgitta Rabe and Dr Angus Holford at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, looked at how children’s weight changed across the school year for Reception children following the introduction of the £600 million-a-year policy.

Dr Rabe said: “This intervention has a significant impact by reducing Reception children’s obesity rates by 7%. It’s a small impact but it’s fast and it’s more effective than other school based initiatives on children of this age, like running the Daily Mile or healthy eating messaging.

Dr Holford added: “We found a beneficial effect of school meals nationally, but it is also apparent when we look only at school children in more affluent areas. This suggests that even for children of middle class parents, the school meals were more nutritionally balanced than what they were bringing in their lunch boxes.”

The study is part of a larger Nuffield Foundation project tracing the impact of the policy of providing balanced school meals to all young children, on bodyweight outcomes, rates of absence due to ill health and attainment in school tests, with full results due to be published early this summer.

Campaigners such as School Food Matters and LACA, the school food providers organisation, are calling on the government to roll the policy out to all primary school and secondary school children, in a bid to break the predicted rise in childhood obesity levels. Currently many US cities, such as New York City, Boston and Chicago provide universal free school meals to all school-aged children. Universal free school meals have been given to children in Sweden since 1973 and Finland since 1948.

Related project


Explore our projects

New

Education | 2020 - 2021

Post-16 educational trajectories and social inequalities in political engagement

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2023

Public expenditure planning and control in complex times

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Comparisons of cognitive skills and educational attainment across the UK

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Competitive effects of free schools on student outcomes in neighbouring schools

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

How UK welfare reform affects larger families

View project
New

Education | Welfare | 2020 - 2020

Measuring the disadvantage attainment gap in 16-19 education

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Teacher supply, shortages and working conditions in England and Wales

View project
Teenage-pupil-wearing-woolly-hat-writes-on-whiteboard-The-influence-of-headteachers-on-their-schools-PROJ
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

The influence of headteachers on their schools

View project
Two young girls being taught fractions and decimals, learning from a school workbook together
New

Education | 2020 - 2021

Teaching fractions and decimals to children aged 3 to 11

View project
Two teenage male pupils study a science lesson as part of their post-16 options
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

Post-16 pathways: the role of peers, family background and expectations

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2020

Education priorities in a forthcoming general election

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

Exploring the impact of curriculum policy on choice, attainment and destinations

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2021

Post-16 educational trajectories and social inequalities in political engagement

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Comparisons of cognitive skills and educational attainment across the UK

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2023

Public expenditure planning and control in complex times

View project
Two young girls being taught fractions and decimals, learning from a school workbook together
New

Education | 2020 - 2021

Teaching fractions and decimals to children aged 3 to 11

View project
Teenage-pupil-wearing-woolly-hat-writes-on-whiteboard-The-influence-of-headteachers-on-their-schools-PROJ
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

The influence of headteachers on their schools

View project
Young-child-blurred-in-background-plays-with-abacus-in-foreground-Early-years-employment-pathways-PROJ
New

Education | 2019 - 2020

A systematic review of early years degrees and employment pathways

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Teacher supply, shortages and working conditions in England and Wales

View project
man reading picture book to baby
New

Education | 2019 - 2022

Do infants learn new words from educational picture books?

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

How UK welfare reform affects larger families

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Competitive effects of free schools on student outcomes in neighbouring schools

View project
New

Education | Welfare | 2020 - 2020

Measuring the disadvantage attainment gap in 16-19 education

View project
Two teenage male pupils study a science lesson as part of their post-16 options
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

Post-16 pathways: the role of peers, family background and expectations

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2021

Post-16 educational trajectories and social inequalities in political engagement

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2023

Public expenditure planning and control in complex times

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Comparisons of cognitive skills and educational attainment across the UK

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Competitive effects of free schools on student outcomes in neighbouring schools

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

How UK welfare reform affects larger families

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Teacher supply, shortages and working conditions in England and Wales

View project
Teenage-pupil-wearing-woolly-hat-writes-on-whiteboard-The-influence-of-headteachers-on-their-schools-PROJ
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

The influence of headteachers on their schools

View project
Two young girls being taught fractions and decimals, learning from a school workbook together
New

Education | 2020 - 2021

Teaching fractions and decimals to children aged 3 to 11

View project
New

Education | Welfare | 2020 - 2020

Measuring the disadvantage attainment gap in 16-19 education

View project
Two teenage male pupils study a science lesson as part of their post-16 options
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

Post-16 pathways: the role of peers, family background and expectations

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2022

The SWAN game-based approach to learning foundational number language

View project
In progress

Welfare | 2019 - 2022

Children living with domestic violence: effects on children’s well-being

View project
Maths resit students taking exam
Reported

Education | 2019 - 2020

A new mathematics GCSE curriculum for post-16 resit students

View project
Reported

Education | 2018 - 2018

GCSE and A-level results day project

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2018 - 2018

Interdisciplinary conference on evidence use in policy

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2018 - 2018

Council tax support schemes’ impact on claimants & local authorities

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2018 - 2018

Improving survey representation of non-resident parents

View project
Reported

Education | 2018 - 2019

Developing a sustainable intervention for disadvantaged children

View project
Reported

Education | 2017 - 2018

Growing up digital

View project
Reported

Justice | Welfare | 2017 - 2018

Addressing the ‘care cases’ crisis: a sector-led review

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2017 - 2018

Vulnerable migrants and well-being: A pilot study

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2017 - 2018

Benchmarking transparency in government’s use of evidence

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2017 - 2017

General Election 2017

View project
Siblings play ball in a playground - Siblings Contact and the Law
Reported

Justice | Welfare | 2017 - 2019

Siblings, contact and the law: an overlooked relationship?

View project
Search projects

We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in EducationWelfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We offer our grant-holders the freedom to frame questions and enable new thinking. Our research must stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but we understand that to be successful in effecting change, it also needs to be relevant to people’s experience.

Profile