Blogs 02.02.2024

Exploring the relationship between Free School Meals and childhood obesity

Dr Angus Holford’s research explores the impact of Free School Meals on children’s bodyweight. Looking forward to his upcoming findings event on Thursday 8 February 2024, Angus reflects on the projects impact so far and shares what to expect from the ‘new research evidence: children’s nutrition in the cost-of-living crisis’ event.


Dr Angus Holford is an Economist at the University of Essex and he regularly attends the ARC East of England’s Prevention and Early Detection in Health and Social Care Food and Nutrition Sub-Group. 

As an Undergraduate in Economics during the 2008 financial crisis, I became interested in the unequal impact of implementing or withdrawing welfare policies such as the Education Maintenance Allowance, which impacted pupils from low-income families. I wanted to learn more about this area, which led to my PhD investigating the stigma faced in receiving Free School Meals, which is a statutory benefit available to school-aged children from families who receive qualifying benefits, asylum support, or have no recourse to public funds and meet an income threshold. This scheme is intended to benefit children in terms of their health, ability to learn and to ease financial pressures on families.

In 2016, Professor Birgitta Rabe found that there was no evaluation of the Universal Infant Free School Meal Scheme, which was introduced in 2014. It cost £600 million per year, so it seemed important to know whether it delivered on its aims or if it achieved other benefits. With a grant from the Nuffield Foundation, we found that the Universal Infant Free School Meal Scheme reduced children’s bodyweight, therefore decreasing the prevalence of childhood obesity for over 4–5 year olds, and it led to a reduction in absences from school. However, we were unable to explore the impact on educational outcomes and whether the benefits persist, or exist for older children. Our current research project aims to tackle these gaps in the evidence.

Understanding the relationship between Free School Meals and children’s body weight

Childhood obesity is a serious public health problem. In England, one in ten children aged 4-5 and one in four aged 10-11 were living with obesity in 2021/22. Children consume around one-third of their diet at school, making school meal provision a possible policy lever to improve weight outcomes among children. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, this two-and-a-half-year project aims to understand the impact of providing Universal Free School Meals on children’s body weight for both Reception (aged 4-5) and Year 6 (age 10-11) children, as well as the educational performance and long-term benefits for Year 6 children. 

I’m the Principal Investigator of the project with co-investigator Birgitta Rabe. We have formed an Advisory Group with members from charities and campaign organisations such as Sustain and School Food Matters along with health and care practitioners from London boroughs who have already implemented Universal Free School Meals. This diverse range of experts has enabled us to have discussions with MPs and contribute our evidence to Feed the Future’s ‘The Superpowers of Free School Meals’ evidence pack, which demonstrated to policymakers the importance of investing in Free School Meals.

“Primary school children in my constituency have benefited from free school meals for over ten years. 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 to learning outcomes.”

Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham

Having worked for several years to assemble the right data, gather feedback from diverse individuals and produce impactful evidence, the most satisfying stage of research, for me, is getting the evidence into the hands of people who can act on it. This has led us to host a hybrid event entitled ‘new research evidence: children’s nutrition in the cost-of-living crisis’ on Thursday 8 February 2024. 

A hybrid event exploring children’s nutrition in the cost-of-living crisis

This event is an exciting opportunity for us to launch our findings with researchers from across the country, campaigners, politicians and members of the public. Our findings highlight the importance of Free School Meals for the health and wellbeing of children. We found that primary-age Universal Free School Meals introduced in Newham, Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets since 2009 reduced obesity prevalence among Reception and Year 6 children. It also led to a small improvement in reading scores by the end of primary school. 

“This event will uniquely bring together evidence on the impact of Universal Free School Meals, the channels through which they happen, and the role they can play in ensuring all children have access to good nutrition.”

Dr Angus Holford, Economist at the University of Essex

While Universal Free School Meals clearly benefits children, it is a small part of the overall food system that determines their health and there are gaps in evidence on the impacts of alternative policies. To understand this in greater depth, we will be joined by Dr Jennie Parnham from Imperial College London and Dr Marie Murphy from the University of Birmingham for a research presentation on what we know about children’s nutritional intake during school hours. Dr Hannah Brinsden from the Food Foundation will share the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on children’s diets. Donna Ward from the Strategic Policy Directorate at the Department of Education will chair a panel debate on how society can effectively ensure that all children have access to good nutrition. This debate aims to explore strategies and solutions for promoting nutritional well-being at a governmental level among children.

We hope policymakers and campaigners will go away informed, as well as us researchers. What ARC research on food and nutrition over the next two years and beyond would make the most difference?

If you want to learn more about our research, then register for the ‘new research evidence: children’s nutrition in the cost-of-living crisis’ event on Thursday 8 Feburary, 13:00 – 16:00. There is an option to join in person at the Nuffield Foundation, 100 St John Street, London EC1M 4EH or alternatively, you can join online. The event is free and open to all, but registration is essential. Find out more here.