If we are able to successfully increase engagement and take up of school meals then we can improve the healthiness of food children eat during the school day, with the aim of reducing childhood obesity in Wales.
So far, our work in this area has resulted in a map of the school meal system, to plot the key connections that make up a typical primary school meal system in Wales. This work helped us to identify where we might be able to most effectively intervene in the current system to make positive changes and who we need to work with to do this.
We also conducted research with parents who have children of primary school age that are eligible for free school meals but still give their children packed lunches. We learnt about why parents made this choice to help us understand the barriers to take up of school meals.
We undertook interviews with practitioners and a rapid literature review to understand the existing evidence and practice around engaging both children and parents in school meals.
Last year we partnered with three councils and four schools in Wales to conduct user testing with parents and children on idea prototypes which aimed to improve takeup of school meals in Wales.
A conclusion of this work was that one intervention, ‘universal school meals take-up month’ (USMTM) was worth exploring further. This intervention involves all pupils within a school being expected to eat school meals for a month (with active opt-outs if they would like to eat packed lunches) - and our research showed it would be most likely to lead to a significant increase in school meal takeup, and was in general well supported by parents.
We will run a series of USMTM pilots with local authorities in Wales, exploring the impact this has on school meal takeup in these schools.
We will also conduct focus groups and surveys with parents, schools and local authorities to explore any challenges that arise from this intervention, and how it might be improved if rolled out to more schools in the future.
We will also aim to understand the potential of USMTM as a standalone intervention or whether it needs to be accompanied by other measures - such as tasting sessions with children, events where parents can meet the chef, and classroom activities related to nutrition and where food comes from - to help build parents’ and childrens’ trust in the school food.