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Testing new ideas to increase the uptake of free school meals in Wales

Over the last six months we have taken a design-led approach to understanding ways of engaging and sharing information with parents and pupils about free school meals that could encourage more families to take up this offer. We worked with four schools across Cardiff, Caerphilly and Torfaen, running 16 workshops with 57 parents and 80 primary school pupils.

Why did we do this?

In September 2022, the Welsh Government began the rollout of a national policy to provide a free healthy school meal to all Welsh primary school pupils by the end of the 2024 academic year. With this move, Wales joins a group of only a few countries with a universal free school meal policy for primary school children. Although we might expect that every pupil would accept their free lunch entitlement, many do not. For example, while data for take-up of universal primary free school meals (UPFSM) have not yet been published in Wales, latest figures for Scotland indicate that, of the 300,000 primary school children entitled to free school meals, uptake is at approximately 62%. Not only do free school meals represent an opportunity for families to save money on their weekly food shop, several studies have suggested that on average they are considerably more healthy than packed lunches. Consequently, increasing uptake of free school meals represents a valuable opportunity to improve the health of children’s diets.

The context

In Spring 2023, we visited primary schools in Cardiff, Caerphilly and Torfaen to understand on-the-ground school meals delivery, how circumstances varied between different schools and councils and where leverage points for intervention might be. We spoke to council catering managers, head teachers, chefs, lunchtime supervisors and pupils of various ages. This provided us with really rich insight from the perspective of multiple actors which was integral to our intervention design. We learned that there are limited opportunities for parents to connect with school food currently. A residual effect of the Covid pandemic is that schools and councils have not resumed many of the in-person activities that enable parents to connect with the school community. For most parents, their only touchpoint with school food is through feedback from their children. Children’s hesitancy to try unfamiliar dishes or their perceived dislike of certain dishes were also a barrier. Both pupils and staff told us that most children prefer a combination of school meals and packed lunches, where they choose the school lunch only when they are certain they will like what is on the menu.

What did we do?

Internally Nesta workshopped ideas for several interventions that were aimed at providing parents with more touch points to connect with school food and reducing barriers to access. We narrowed these ideas down to four, which we brought to our design workshops in schools for initial testing.

Video messages from school chefs

We shot two low-fi videos featuring a school chef and a council catering lead talking about school food and showing it being prepared. Its purpose was to build familiarity and trust in the quality of school food and in the people responsible for its delivery.

A meal kit box

This contained ingredients and a recipe card for dishes on the current school menu for families to cook at home together. Its aim was to demonstrate the quality of ingredients and the tastiness of the recipes, but to also allow children to try out these dishes at home.

Universal school meal take-up month

A printed flyer announced a month during which all pupils within a school are expected to eat school meals and would be required to actively opt out if they would like to eat packed lunches. Such an intervention would aim to create an opportunity for pupils to form new habits and a culture in which participation in school lunches is normalised.

Social norm nudges

SMS and parent communication platform prompts to establish a social norm that most local parents sign their children up to universal free school meals.

What did we learn?

We tested these prototypes in several Welsh primary schools, actively engaging parents and children in the intervention design and adaptation. We ran 16 design workshops across four schools during which we spoke to 53 parents and approximately 80 children. The feedback we received emphasised the importance of trust-building. For parents, trust is centred around confidence that their children will eat enough so as to not be hungry, and that the food they eat is of high quality. They also need to trust that their children have enjoyable social experiences during their lunch breaks. What mattered most to pupils overlapped in some areas with parents, but what was unique to them was their need to trust that trying new foods at school should be accompanied by a familiar low-risk alternative. ie, they did not want to go hungry if they did not like something on the menu.

Parents who participated in our workshops were very engaged in the process, interested in school food and really value Wales’ universal primary free school meal policy. In an ideal world most parents told us that they would want their children to always eat the lunch provided by the school. The most common barriers to signing children up for school meals were a perceived lack of menu choice, fussy eating habits, anxiety around new foods or a concern from parents that special dietary needs could not be met. Children revealed that social pressures and friendship influences were also an important part of their lunchtime experience. Wanting to sit with friends and attractively packaged snacks and sweet foods in lunch boxes were also a powerful lure from school meals.

As the testing phase concluded, we brought councils and headteachers together to assess the prototypes, interpret the parents’ and children’s feedback and generate ideas for improving the intervention designs. The schools and council representatives helped us understand how to most effectively and feasibly trial interventions given the current constraints. For example, through running taster sessions as part of events already in school calendars including parents evenings or nursery to reception transition events, or introducing a universal school food participation for specific year groups.

Next steps

Of the prototypes tested, we concluded that the universal school meal take-up month concept had the greatest potential to cost effectively increase uptake in a way that doesn't make excessive demands on school resources. However, certain other supporting interventions and measures, such as taste testing and pupil engagement may be required to drive its success.

We will be refining our intervention prototypes over the summer with the intention of piloting a universal school meal take-up month and supporting interventions over next year. We are now reaching out to schools and councils to take part in the pilot. Any school or council leaders who would like to discuss this with us, please contact Jonathan Bone.

We are hugely grateful to the headteachers, staff, pupils and parents of Trelai and Glyncoed Primary Schools in Cardiff, Rhiw Syr Dafydd Primary, Blackwood and Ysgol Gymraeg, Cwmbran. We are also indebted to Karen Spiller, Caerphilly Council, Tracy James, Torfaen Council, and Judith Gregory, Cardiff City 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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