Quality and size portions, rather than stigma, are the main reasons that pupils are not taking up their free school meals, according to new research by Leeds Metropolitan University, published this week in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

In England, children from low income families in receipt of state benefits are entitled to receive free school meals.  Previous research highlights that pupils receiving free school meals obtain a higher proportion of their daily energy and nutrient intake from their meal compared with those who pay.  But, of the 1.5 million families entitled, only 1.2 million register and only 1 million children actually consume their free meal.  The study set out to discover why.

Led by Professor Pinki Sahota at Leeds Metropolitan’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing and commissioned by Leeds City Council’s School Meal Strategy Advisor, Rosemary Molinari, the research, which is the first phase of a larger project, took place in four primary schools and four secondary schools in Leeds and involved interviews with head teachers, school administrators, caterers, parents and pupils themselves.

Professor Sahota found that, although the concern of stigma related to  being identified as claiming free school meals was cited by some, the main reasons for not taking their free meals were: the quality and choice of food and drink on offer not being of a high enough standard; portion sizes being too small with some children going home hungry and parents having to subsidise  the cost; and the dining experience not being appealing – including breaks being too short, lengthy queuing times, noise, not being able to sit with friends who were packed lunch-eaters and unpleasant lighting and surroundings. Furthermore, schools are not actively encouraging free school meal uptake and some do not understand the application process themselves.

Professor Sahota commented: “The current economic downturn has heightened concern for the wellbeing of children from financially disadvantaged families.  As a result, school food has assumed an elevated position.  We wanted to find out why half a million eligible children are not eating a free school meal.  Our findings show that the best way of improving the uptake of free school meals is to aim to increase the uptake of all (paid and free) school meals as the factors limiting this, including quality and dining environment, apply to all children.”

The paper, produced by Professor Sahota with Leeds Metropolitan Research Fellow, Jenny Woodward, Rosemary Molinari and Dr Jo Pike of the University of Leeds, suggests that schools need to develop individualised proactive approaches to promoting free school meals.  Attention needs to be given not only to the quality and availability of food but also to the social, cultural and environmental aspects of dining.  Cashless payment systems used by the some of the secondary schools involved in the study proved effective in giving pupils anonymity and protecting them from stigma. Improved communication between staff and parents and better understanding of the application process in school staff is also recommended.

The researchers have used these findings to develop a range of interventions which they have now tested in ten schools as part of the second phase of this two year research study.  Results are currently being analysed.

This paper is freely available for 2 weeks from the date of this post.  Access the paper here

For further details please contact Carrie Braithwaite in the Communications team at Leeds Met on 0113 812 3022 or email c.braithwaite@leedsmet.ac.uk

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