The problem

Of 8.4 million school children in England, 3.4 million are eligible for free school meals and just under 2 million are eligible through the means-tested system.

Inflation and the cost-of-living crises has pushed more households into poverty, meaning many families are now food insecure. Increasing access to school meals is a therefore potentially effective way of protecting children’s health and wellbeing.

Policymakers are concerned about budget impact from providing universal access, and although some evidence exists on the costs and benefits of alternative policy options, more research is needed to cover the range of options available.

The intervention

From January to May 2024, this project is exploring whether there are routes to increasing free or subsidised school meals in a way that is economically sustainable. The exact policy options are to be decided, but are likely to focus on increasing eligibility for free school meals and/or offering subsidised school meal options.

The aim is that increased uptake of school meals can lead to direct health and education benefits for pupils and wider benefits to society.

The research

Primary research question

What are the costs and benefits of a range of options for increasing access to free and/or subsidised primary school meals from a societal perspective?

Theory of change

More about the research

Two economic models (PricewaterhouseCoopers and Institute for Fiscal Studies: IFS) have been published. Our evaluation will build on this knowledge using model-based cost benefit analysis (CBA) adapted from the Manchester Combined Authority CBA tool based on stakeholder consultation and evidence review, as well as addition cost benefit analysis.

We also intend to conduct process evaluation interviews with parents and school staff towards the end of the study.

To agree the model scope and policy options, we will conduct interviews with stakeholders in local government authorities, and primary school research partners.

We will conduct an evidence review for model parameters, and primary data collection from parents and guardians to inform the model parameters.

We will use purposive sampling for stakeholder consultation, and targeted sampling for survey of parents to elicit Willingness to Pay (WTP – the maximum price that a customer is willing to pay for a product or service) for a school meal.

Outputs and impacts

Proposed outputs include academic paper reporting the main model results on health, education and wider societal outcomes resulting from alternative policy options.

We will also produce policy briefings for West Midlands Combined Authority and Local Authorities, as well as reports for our research partners.

Research Team