About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

We set out in December 2022 to explore how we could increase the takeup of universal free school meals in Wales as the Welsh Government rolls out the programme over the next two academic years.

Our polling in Wales and Scotland has shown that parents are key decision makers in whether their child has school meals or brings their own packed lunch, making parents a key target for changing perceptions and behaviours.

In this phase of the project, we wanted to better understand the existing evidence and practice around engaging both children and parents in school meals.

We aimed to highlight areas where further exploration with stakeholders in Wales is needed – and potentially begin to design interventions to test in schools in Wales.

What did we do?

Between December 2022 and January 2023, we undertook a period of rapid insight gathering that included:

- A rapid literature review – identifying peer-reviewed articles on intervention studies aimed at increasing participation in school meals.

- Interviews with subject matter experts, including academics, food consultants, headteachers and public health bodies. This builds on previous qualitative immersive research with teachers, children and catering staff.

Here's what we learnt from our rapid insights gathering:

1. School meal uptake is a topic ripe for quality, UK-based research

What stood out was that more robust research is needed on how we can improve school meal participation, particularly regarding how we involve parents. Whilst we found a lot of case studies in the UK, of the 15 published papers where primary outcomes reflected uptake or participation, none were UK-based, and the overall quality of the studies was mixed.

Most studies featured activities that were part of multi-component interventions and so they could not evaluate the independent outcomes of individual activities.

2. Interventions fall into four categories

What the studies did show was that there are four broad categories of interventions targeting school meal uptake:

  • Alternative ways of serving food
  • Dining room redesigns/alterations
  • Menu-based interventions
  • Tasting and promotions

Whilst the strongest evidence across the studies was for flexible and alternative ways of serving breakfasts we can’t replicate this for the dinner offer. We must first understand the particular barriers to uptake of these meals to ensure any interventions in this area address these directly.

We did not identify any studies evaluating interventions targeting parents with the aim of increasing uptake/participation.

3. “It’s as much about the food as it’s not about the food”

Our interviews proved consistent and enlightening.

The interviews took place with individuals across a broad and informed range of professions but all those we spoke to were in agreement that you can’t decouple uptake to consider it in an isolated manner without also looking at typical barriers and motivations to taking up school meals.

Whilst children are key influencers in parent’s decision making, interviewees told us that parent’s perceptions of school meals were often limited to the feedback from children directly as other ways of communication and exposure are little utilised. The quality of meals and the variety of options available were two factors that were mentioned as being particularly influential on children’s perceptions of school meals, which in turn, influences parents decision-making.

There’s consensus from those involved across the system for a need to focus on the interrelated factors that influence perceptions of school meals, including historical experiences of parents, financial constraints and the value of parental engagement.

Therefore, we must consider the wider process and environment at both a school level and a policy level to determine key determinants of uptake by families. We also heard how schools differ widely in terms of child and parent behaviours and mindsets and so each approach needs to be bespoke to each school – there is no one formula for success that can be applied across schools.

We gathered insight into financial and implementation issues that would warrant further research. For example, driving uptake requires simultaneous consideration of capacity both in the school and in the dining room area to be able to meet greater demand without creating excessive waiting times or reducing the quality of the meals produced.

We believe that exposing parents to the school food system, including the catering team, is a key opportunity to improve perceptions of school food for parents, which in turn would support them in making decisions about their child’s lunch option. Included in exposure is targeted messaging about the benefits of enrolling for the universal free school meal offer in Wales.

What’s next?

Given the low existing evidence base, our work in this area will require developing new approaches as well as building on existing work within schools and at a policy level. We should focus on gathering more insight from parents, given their critical role in this system, and learn how we could potentially test messaging and change perceptions. We are also keen to understand interventions that could be introduced - from ordering systems to opt-out policies.

There’s a lot of good practice out there but defining what success looks like is important. Our interviewees were keen to point out that the target uptake rate of free school meals will reflect cultural and dietary requirements, which means there will always be some packed lunches on the table.


Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Pennaeth Nesta Cymru / Head of Nesta Cymru

Rob is Head of Nesta Cymru - responsible for the delivery of Nesta's strategy in Wales.

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Geetika Kejriwal

Geetika Kejriwal

Geetika Kejriwal

Designer, A Healthy Life

Geetika was a design practitioner for Nesta's healthy life mission. She believes in an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to design.

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Clara Widdison

Clara Widdison

Clara Widdison

Mission Manager, healthy life mission

Clara is the mission manager for the healthy life mission.

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Patricia Beloe

Patricia Beloe

Patricia Beloe

Analyst, healthy life mission

Patricia Beloe is an analyst in the healthy life team.

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