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Call for increase in free school meal take-up

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During this week’s National School Meals Week, research from innovation charity Nesta reveals the potential health benefits of universal free school meals for primary children in Wales, as many parents in Wales are still choosing to give their children packed lunches.

The most recent figures from Welsh Government show in January 2022 around one in five children who were eligible for free school meals were not taking up the offer.  

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The study by Nesta aimed to explore how healthy packed lunches are for children who choose to eat packed lunches even when school meals are free.

Nesta analysed the calorie content in a selection of packed lunches and found that, on average, these worked out 8% higher calories (43 extra calories) than the guidelines for school meals and contained higher levels of fat. 

As part of exploratory research Nesta polled 131 parents in Wales with children eligible for free school meals but still given packed lunches to find out why they choose not to take up the free offer.

The largest barrier to school meal take up amongst Welsh parents was that their child preferred the food in packed lunches (46% of parents said that this influenced their decision “very much”).

It was a similar issue with children not liking the food on offer in schools (27% of parents said that this influenced their decision “very much”). This suggests more could be done to make school food more appetising to children, while not at the cost to healthiness.

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The prevalence of obesity in reception age children is higher in Wales than in other parts of the UK, and Wales has higher levels of obesity among 15-year-olds than all European countries except Malta.

Food eaten in school is an important part of children’s diets, making up 17% of meals and snacks eaten by primary school children.

Nesta is exploring how to improve the healthiness of what children eat during the school day, with the aim of reducing childhood obesity in Wales.

Parents revealed what could motivate them to take up the free school meal offer. Schools offering more than three main meal options for lunch everyday was the change that the highest number of  parents (23%) said would have the greatest influence on them to increase the frequency with which their child eats school dinners.

School meal menus created in collaboration with pupils was the next most likely influence on Welsh parents (12%) with school meals meeting high nutritional standards the third biggest influence (11%) to increase frequency of taking up school dinners. 

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Jonathan Bone, mission manager at Nesta Cymru said, “As National School Meals Week launches and the roll out of universal free school meals continues across Wales there is a real opportunity to increase school meal take up and we are looking at ways to support this through innovations, whether this is sharing information on nutritional content of meals or even letting parents try the food for themselves.

“There may be an opportunity in Wales to improve diets by encouraging a switch to school meals. Part of this is going to be about making school food more attractive and varied where possible, but there is also an opportunity around better engaging both parents and children so they can understand more about what is on offer.” 

Brad Pearce, the National Chair of LACA, the organisation that represents the school catering sector said, “A school lunch provides children with a hot, healthy and nutritious meal. This National School Meals Week we are encouraging as many children as possible to take up this meal, especially those who are entitled to the Free School Meal benefit. Nesta’s research into barriers to take-up of school meals in Wales is really interesting, as are the opportunities for schools to work with families and caterers to increase take-up of the offer. 

“Currently, only 1.6% of packed lunches meet all the school food standards and for some children a school lunch is, sadly, their only hot meal of the day. At LACA, we believe that providing children with quality, fresh food is necessary to create a generation of happy, healthy and well performing individuals, and this belief is why we are proud and vocal advocates for extending the eligibility of free school meals to all households on Universal Credit.”

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