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Increasing uptake of free school meals in Wales: school meals, count me in month pilots

Studies consistently demonstrate that, on average, the nutritional quality of school meals surpasses that of packed lunches. Nevertheless, even when school meals are free at the point of use, around 30% of Welsh primary school children continue to bring in a packed lunch, forgoing a free and nutritionally balanced meal in the middle of the day.

Last year we partnered with Cardiff, Caerphilly and Torfaen councils to rapidly test a range of ideas with parents and pupils aimed at boosting uptake of free school meals in Wales. A conclusion of this work identified one intervention - 'School Meals, Count Me In Month' (SMCMIM) - that was likely to be the most cost-effective of the ideas explored and worth investigating further. This intervention simply involves setting an expectation that pupils within a school will eat school meals for a month unless their parent actively opts out - in this case by sending an email to the council catering team.

The aim of the latest phase of the project was to pilot SMCMIM with six primary schools across two local authorities in Wales, exploring the impact on school meal uptake and testing how to run the intervention most effectively. The findings will help inform whether we should invest resources into a future large-scale SMCMIM trial, and if so how we should deliver it.

What are we doing?

Our intervention design leveraged the well-known default bias – the phenomenon that individuals tend to stick with the default or pre-set option (for instance, most people never change the ringtone on a new mobile phone). We hypothesised that flipping the default option - from an expectation that pupils will eat a packed lunch unless their parent actively orders a school meal, to pupils eating a school meal unless parents say otherwise - would encourage more pupils to try out school meals. We hope this will prompt sustained improvements in school meal uptake by giving pupils who normally choose a packed lunch a chance to become more familiar with, and thus more fond of, the food on offer.

Roll out of SMCMIM in Torfaen and Caerphilly

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During October 2023, we ran the first SMCMIM pilot with three primary schools in collaboration with Torfaen County Borough Council’s catering team. We then ran the same intervention with three primary schools in Caerphilly over January 2024 — making small refinements to the intervention based on lessons from the Torfaen pilot.

We worked closely with the schools and council partners on communications and engagement with parents and children to:

  • build awareness of the pilot and the opt-out requirement prior to launch
  • ease any potential concerns and
  • proactively encourage all children to participate.

We also wanted to test if changing the default alone was sufficient, or if supporting measures were needed. These included tasting sessions with children and events where parents could meet the catering team. These were designed to build parents’ and children’s trust in school food. These supporting activities took place in two schools while the third school used the standalone intervention (default opt-in to school meals) and basic communications materials (such as emails to parents and posters displayed around the schools). For the Caerphilly pilot, we included an additional school where we ran only taster sessions with parents and children during a school event without any other parts of the intervention (eg, we did not implement the switch to opt-out for school meals).

Conclusion and next steps

During the SMCMIM we visited all participating schools to observe a school lunchtime and spoke to pupils, school and catering staff and parents about the intervention and how it was being implemented. We are also holding workshops with parents, school leadership and councils to understand what worked well and where improvements could be made. Alongside this we are analysing data on how school meal uptake changed during and three months after SMCMIM in participating schools and comparing this with other schools in the council areas.

We will be publishing a full evaluation in June 2024.

We are hugely grateful to the headteachers, staff, pupils and parents of Ysgol Gymraeg Cwmbran, St David’s RC Primary School, Garnteg Primary School, Rhiw Syr Dafydd Primary School, Blackwood Primary School and Deri Primary School. We are also indebted to Karen Spiller and Marcia Lewis (Caerphilly County Borough Council) and Tracy James (Torfaen County Borough Council).


Patricia Beloe

Patricia Beloe

Patricia Beloe

Analyst, healthy life mission

Patricia Beloe is an analyst in the healthy life team.

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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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