UK free school meal allowances too low for healthy lunches, study finds

Free school meal allowances are not enough for students from lower-income backgrounds to buy healthy school lunches, research suggests.

The study, presented at the European Congress of Obesity (ECO), involved 42 pupils aged between 11 and 15 at seven schools across the UK.

The students were provided with a daily budget that was equivalent to the free school meal (FSM) allowance at their school, which was between £2.15 and £2.70. The pupils kept food diaries that detailed what they bought, the quality of the food and whether they felt full for the rest of the school day.

The researchers concluded that the allowance meant students were mainly restricted to meal deals, despite the fact that non-meal-deal items may have been healthier but more expensive.

They also found that the students felt under pressure to make quick decisions that may not have been the healthiest due to the limited amount of time they had during their break, leading them to “grab and go”.

In most schools the students were not able to access their school meal allowance before lunch, meaning they were often hungry during the morning break.

The study also found there was a lack of fresh fruit, vegetables and salad available in schools, and that in four of the schools no fruit was bought by the students taking part in the study.

Dr Sundus Mahdi, of the University of York, said the findings showed that under the current FSM allowance the students were restricted to buying meal deals that were not necessarily the healthiest option.

“What we also found was that non-meal-deal items were generally more expensive but they can also be healthier, which is also very relevant in terms of what we are seeing now with the cost of living and inflation that healthier food just tends to be more expensive,” Mahdi said.

“Unfortunately, the portion sizes given to some pupils were not enough to sustain them during the school day. There was actually one participant that said that during the week they actually brought a packed lunch with them in addition to their free school meal allowance, because it just wasn’t filling them up.”

She said there was agreement among the researchers and participants that the FSM allowance needed to be increased so that students would be able “to buy a more filling meal and to not go hungry throughout the school day”.

The researchers also called for an amendment to the school food standard so that schools have to include two portions of vegetables with every meal.

Separate research by the Food Foundation suggests it is 45% more expensive for parents to provide their children with a healthy packed lunch compared with a less nutritious one.

Out of five supermarket chains, Aldi had the largest gap (77%) between the cost of a healthy and unhealthy packed lunch, at £10.08 and £5.68 respectively. Tesco had the smallest gap, at 9%, with the healthy option costing £8.56 compared to the unhealthy alternative at £7.82.

Prof Maria Bryant, the chief investigator, said: “We know that 30% of daily meal intake in primary schoolchildren happens during the school day, so it’s a substantial part of food intake. Poor meal choice often is a result of a lack of funding and often driven by contracts and procurement processes.”

About 1.9 million children are eligible for free schools meals in England. To be eligible, a household must earn less than £7,400 after tax and before benefits.

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