Project PEDHSC31

The Impacts of Universal Free School Meal Schemes in England

What happens to children's bodyweights and educational attainment when you offer free school lunches to every child, not just those whose parents have low incomes?


Child overweight and obesity is a serious worldwide public health problem. In England in 2021/22, over 1 in 5 children were living with overweight or obesity at age 4-5, and over 1 in 3 at ages 10-11. This has serious implications for children’s health, and their health into adulthood; and significant healthcare and indirect productivity costs. At the same time, food and energy-price inflation, slow wage-growth and real-terms benefit cuts are producing a cost-of-living crisis in the UK. School meal provision is an obvious policy lever to increase rates of healthy weight among children, to help households with the cost of living, and improve children's educational attainment.

Project Aims

The project aimed to evaluate the impacts of Local Authorities' Universal Free School Meal schemes on children's Body Mass Index classifications, educational performance and absences from school, and household food expenditure.

Project Activity

We analysed data on the population or nationally representative samples of children in the relevant cohorts.

We used the change in outcomes in other Local Authorities (that never introduced Universal Free School Meals) as a guide to what would have happened in Local Authorities that did introduce Universal Free School Meals. This is called a 'difference-in-difference' method.

We also controlled for other things that might affect children's BMI and educational attainment, including the sex and ethnicity of the children, and the density of fast food outlets in the Local Authority.

Anticipated or actual outputs

We expect this project to inform debate about the future of the Department for Education’s Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) policy, and Local or Combined Authorities’ or Devolved Governments’ own Universal Free School Meal (UFSM) schemes, which could be funded through their Public Health grant. Policy options including removing universal entitlement from all age groups, extending universal entitlement to all primary school children, or extending means-tested entitlement to all children in households on Universal Credit, are all possible outcomes within the next electoral cycle.


Full report and 2-page Explainer are downloadable from the project page here:

Who was involved?

Dr Angus Holford, PI, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex (corresponding)
Professor Birgitta Rabe, Co-I, Professor of Economics, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex