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Identifying barriers to free school meal take-up in Wales

Nesta is exploring how food eaten in schools can be made as healthy as possible. As part of this work, we’ve recently been doing some exploratory research on the lack of take-up of the free school meal offer.

As recently as 2020, nearly one in four children who were eligible for free school meals were not taking up the offer. With the roll-out of universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) underway in Wales we were keen to understand what barriers there were to the take-up.

We recruited 259 parents (128 Scotland and 131 parents in Wales) who have children of primary school age that are eligible for free school meals but still give their children packed lunches at least three times a week. We asked participants to complete a survey and food diary task on behalf of their child.

Why did we want to do this work?

We were aiming to understand if there could be an opportunity to improve children's diets by increasing school meal take-up once universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) has been implemented in Wales.

We wanted to explore the relative healthiness of packed lunches of children that choose to eat packed lunches even when school meals are free. We also wanted to understand what the key barriers to choosing a school meal might be once they are made free for all primary school children in Wales and what measures might help improve take-up.

Several previous studies offer a useful starting point for understanding how we might increase take-up of school meals, but they are limited in that:

  • they were conducted before the introduction of the 2013 school food standards, meaning the food on offer is likely to have been considerably different to today's offer
  • they were not conducted in a way that helps us understand what the barriers to take-up are once the barrier of cost is removed
  • several other developments are likely to have taken place since these studies were conducted which may have changed what the key barriers are (for example, the widespread adoption of digital payment systems may have decreased queue times).

Evidence suggests that school lunches are considerably more healthy than packed lunches – school lunches in the UK are covered by regulatory standards related to their nutritional profile which states that they should average 530 calories per day. A 2010 study found that only 1.1% of packed lunches met these standards and usually averaged 624 calories. Another study showed that primary-age children who eat school lunches consume less energy, more protein and fibre (both of which have been shown to keep you fuller for longer, preventing snacking later in the day), and less sugar and saturated fat, than those that eat packed lunches.

This evidence suggests that we can make a considerable improvement to children’s diets by shifting more children from eating packed lunches to eating school lunches.

So what’s in a packed lunch?

We asked participants to fill in the food diary to detail what they typically give their child for their school packed lunch. We received a food diary from 105 Welsh and Scottish participants.

Our analysis found evidence that the average calories in children's packed lunches (569 kcal) was greater than the maximum permitted by Welsh school food regulatory standards (530 calories).

These figures suggest that it may be possible to considerably improve the diets of primary-age children in Wales by encouraging them to shift from school meals to packed lunches.

The barriers to take-up of free school meals

What we were really interested in finding out was why free school meals weren’t being taken up. Nearly three quarters of parents (74%) said it was them or another carer (rather than the child) that decides if their child eats a packed lunch on any given day. So it seems that parents should be the main focus of attempts to encourage an increase in school meal take-up.

The largest barrier to school meal take-up amongst parents was that their child preferred the food in packed lunches (49% 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 (33% of parents said that this influenced their decision “very much”). These insights suggest that more could be done to make school food more appetising to children, without affecting healthiness.

The opportunities

With 196,000 additional children eligible for free school meals in Wales in the coming three years, finding ways to increase take-up and improve the healthiness of food eaten in school is our focus. The early stage research has given us a better understanding of motivations and areas to increase opportunities for take-up.

Parents were asked what could motivate them to take up the free school meal offer. Schools offering more than three main meal options for lunch everyday and school meal menus created in collaboration with pupils were joint in having the highest number of parents (19%) saying that these options would have the greatest influence on them to increase the frequency with which their child eats school dinners.

As a result, we began to dig in to several measures that could be relatively low in cost to implement, for example, sharing information on nutritional content of meals or even letting parents try the food for themselves.

What’s next?

We’re currently exploring opportunities to work with local authorities and schools to design and test interventions that could help increase take-up of school meals in Wales. If you have any questions or thoughts on this research or would be interested in working with us to increase take-up of school meals, please get in touch with Jonathan Bone at [email protected].


Jonathan Bone

Jonathan Bone

Jonathan Bone

Mission Manager, healthy life mission

Jonathan works within Nesta Cymru (Wales), focusing on working across public, private and non-profit sectors to deliver innovative solutions that tackle obesity and loneliness in Wales.

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Darren Hilliard

Darren Hilliard

Darren Hilliard

Analyst, healthy life mission

Darren joins Nesta as an analyst for the healthy life mission.

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