Make healthy school meals free for all children in poverty, says parents in new Children’s Food Campaign and Food Active research.

As millions more children return to school this week, research with over 750 parents across the UK shows overwhelming support for the Government extending free school meals to all children in poverty, following their experiences of feeding children during lockdown. 

The new Parents’ Jury report published today, Thursday 10 Sept, looks at parents’ experiences of feeding their children during Covid19 lockdown and asks what policies in relation to school food and wider healthier food environments they would like to see Government act on.

The survey conducted by the Children’s Food Campaign and Food Active paints a vivid picture of how children’s eating and drinking habits were affected during lockdown, with one in three (31%) saying they had found it harder to maintain healthy, nutritious eating habits whilst children were at home.

How Lockdown affected eating habits
  • 7 in 10 parents reported that their children ate more snacks as a result of being in lockdown.
  • Children ate more crisps (35%), ice creams and lollies (46%), cakes and biscuits (40%), sweets and chocolate (30%).
  • 54% of parents surveyed said more home cooked meals were eaten whilst 43% said they ate the same as usual.
  • 2 in 5 children (40%) ate more fruit and veg, whilst 1 in 3 (33%) drank more water.
  • Boredom, anxiety, and treats and rewards for good behaviour were cited by parents as reasons their children wanted constant snacks and food. 
Government Commitments

The research also reveals a continued high degree of concern amongst parents about growing levels of children’s food insecurity and hunger. Parents were asked their views on the Government’s commitment to fund free school meals and healthy food policies, as schools reopen this September.

  • 9 in 10 parents (90%) agreed that the Government should now review eligibility to make free school meals available to ALL children in poverty. Parents also agree that eligibility should be based on income, regardless of immigration status (89%).
  • More than 8 in 10 parents (83%) would also like to see holiday food provision available for all children eligible for Free School Meals.  
  • More than 7 in 10 (73%) support the Government decision to retain Universal Infant Free School Meals, compared to 26% support for restricting free meals to children in poverty only. 
  • Almost 7 in 10 (68%) would like the Universal Infant Free School Meal programme extended to the whole of primary schools. 
Parents’ Priorities to ‘build back better’

Finally, the research asked parents what their priorities were for children’s food and to help ‘build back better’, as children return to school.

Alongside extending eligibility to Free School Meals and providing more support for children living in food insecure households (56%), parents strongly backed further measures to increase availability and affordability of healthier food and drink, and reduce the prompts that will continue to fuel desire to eat less healthy foods and snacking habits.

Parents want to see price promotions away from unhealthy foods and towards healthier ones, with more than 1 in 2 (52%) of parents including this in their top three priorities for Government action to build back better.

One in five (21%) parents also included a ban on TV/online advertising amongst the top three things that they now want Government to prioritise.

“Parents are very clear about their own responsibilities to encourage healthy food habits, but it’s clear from this research that it’s a constant struggle too. Whether it’s the food served up in schools, or the constant stream of advertising, marketing and price promotions nudging families and children towards treats, fast foods and snacking, we need measures such as those in the obesity strategy to make healthy food the most affordable and appealing choice”.

Beth Bradshaw, project officer from Food Active who worked on the research.

There could be some win-win policy options for the Government to fund school food
programmes as well as reduce prevalence of unhealthy foods through increased use of
fiscal incentives. For example, 8 in 10 parents (80%) would like all schools to have healthy breakfast club available to pupils. The current National School Breakfast Programme, run by Magic Breakfast and Family Action, was established using income raised by the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) – a great example of how the tax can be invested in programmes to improve children’s health.

Click here to download the briefing, and click here to download a presentation of the full results from the survey. 

767 parents took part in the survey conducted by the Children’s Food Campaign and Food Active from 22 June-17 July 2020. The survey was open to any parent of children up to the age of 18 in the UK on a voluntary basis. Participation was invited through the Children’s Food Campaign Parents’ Jury, as well as via members and partner organisations, local public health and food campaigning organisations, and via social media channels.

The Obesity Empowerment Network was founded to to improve the health and lives of people affected by overweight and obesity. Click here to discover the OEN UK mission.