Episode 28: The future of free school meals

June 2023

Free school meals can have a great impact on both children and wider society. Join us as we discuss the potential expansion of free school meals in England, looking at who currently receives them, what the potential benefits to children and society are from expanding this policy, and what we expect to happen next.

Read the full report: A cost benefit analysis of free school meal provision expansion and explore the Impact on Urban Health free school meals analysis.

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Stela Bagasheva: Welcome to the latest episode of our Economics and Business podcast. I'm your new regular host Stela Bagasheva. In today's episode we'll be discussing the potential expansion of free school meals in the UK. Who currently receives these free school meals, what are the potential benefits to children and society from expanding this policy, and what to expect to happen next? To explore this topic further, we are joined in the virtual studio today by Mark Heffernan, Alia Qamar, and Thanh Dinh, who are part of the team behind a new report on the costs and benefits of free school meals expansion, published by PwC in collaboration with Impact on Urban Health. And before we go into the detail of the report and the scope of the work, could each one of you introduce yourselves to our listeners?

Mark Heffernan: Hi, yes, good morning. Thanks for having me today. I'm Mark Heffernan. I'm Head of Policy and Influencing at Impact on Urban Health. We're part of Guy's and St Thomas's Foundation, which is a charitable foundation based in South London, focused on health equity and making urban places healthier for everyone to live. And as part of that work, we've got a 10-year programme which explores the relationship between children's health and the availability and affordability of healthy food for children and families. And obviously schools are a key setting, where children can have a healthy, hot, nutritious meal, and that was our interest in the school food agenda. And it was very much the starting point for this work we're about to talk about today.

Thanh Dinh: Hi, I'm Thanh Dinh. I am a Senior Associate within Strategy& Economics team, and I've been working on many interesting impact assessment pieces across a range of clients, in particular the work that we are going to discuss today, with Impact on Urban Health. In terms of my contribution with the project, I led the costs and benefit assessment, which we'll be, kind of, walking you through throughout this session.

Alia Qamar: Hi everyone. So, I'm Alia Qamar. I'm a Senior Manager in the Economics team, with a focus on impact assessments, particularly for government clients and the charitable sector. And I was the day-to-day lead on the free school meal cost benefit analysis report that we're going to be talking about today.

Stela: Perfect, thank you all for joining us. I'm super excited to discuss this topic. So, first of all, I'd like to start out by mentioning that, at the end of February, the mayor Sadiq Khan announced that he will be expanding free school meals to all primary school children. So, Mark, how does that make you feel?

Mark: Yes, it was obviously fantastic. Fantastic both because, you know, we and partners have been pushing on free school meals, and the value it has for children across society for a long time. So, to see such big policy movement was really gratifying, and you're right, it's only for a year, but we hope it will be beyond that, and hope it will go beyond London soon too. And then obviously really gratifying because, as you said, on the Today programme Sadiq piloted this work, so it's clearly already informing policy development, which is totally fantastic, and is exactly what we hoped for.

Stela: Perfect. Really good. Okay, so let's, kind of, dive in into the ins and outs of the report. Alia, could you do a quick introduction of the free school meals programme, and what it is?

Alia: Sure. Happy to. So, the history of free school meals actually goes back, in the UK, to the early 19th century. So, it followed quite quickly on the back of, sort of, universal provision of primary education, and on the back of that there was a move towards bringing in healthy free school meals to children, in order to enable them to have the same opportunities to learn and thrive, regardless of where they were growing up, and their socio-economic status. Since then, however, provision itself, particularly within England, is means tested, so not everybody is eligible for free school meals currently. In terms of what the current eligibility status is, that's infants who are in nursery to year two, so up to the age of seven are all eligible for free school meals. And then children from vulnerable households, with low incomes, around anywhere under £7,400 per annum, are currently eligible, broadly speaking. And this is, kind of, one of the reasons for this work. It was to, sort of, address the fact that actually, you know, there is not universal provision. However, there has been quite a lot of research that has been done, most recently by the Child Poverty Action Group, which showed that actually a third of children were living in poverty in the UK. That's about 800,000 children who currently don't qualify for free school meals, which indicates actually a significant proportion of the school-going population in England, who are not eligible and don't receive the proper nutrition that they need to learn and concentrate at school. And that's, as I said, one of the key reasons that Impact on Urban Health commissioned this work, and we as PwC were keen to be part of actually undertaking this research and providing some more evidence.

Stela: Okay, it sounds like this is a great policy, but it seems to be failing to cover many children who would actually benefit from it. So, Mark, I would be interested to hear more on how this report came about, and why Impact on Urban Health reached out to PwC.

Mark: Yeah, it's a great question and I think, you know, partly you've already answered it with your comment there, which is that there is a real lack of provision of free school meals in this country, which has been known about for a long time. But this report, you know, came about at a time when we felt like the opportunity for policy change on free school meals was growing, while at the same time the need for all children to have access to nutritious food in schools was becoming really clear, and that was true for a few reasons. Like, the first was the evidence base, both from Impact on Urban Health, from our many partners and from around the world, was becoming really strong. So, we know that free school meals have a positive impact on education attainment. We know that they benefit children's physical and mental health, and we know that they lead to productivity improvements over the short and also the long term. And some of those benefits are really striking. So, for example, one Swedish study showed that, if children have access to free school meals over the course of their education, they are on average on centimetre taller, and have 3% higher income into later life. Like, these are really big impacts. The second thing that we knew was that, from our programme, was that access to good quality food in schools really varied, and it varied particularly depending on where children lived, and where they came from. So, we're seeing inequalities playing out in schools, and that risk perpetuating inequalities into later life and to broader society as well.

And then the third thing, I think, important to recognise was this work came just after the COVID-19 pandemic, and that, you know, was important partly because the work of Marcus Rashford, the fantastic work of Marcus Rashford and others, including some of our partners, had raised awareness with the public of the importance of good meal provision in schools. And it was important also because sadly the pressures which have come during and after the pandemic, with the cost-of-living crisis, meant that more families were finding it difficult to access the healthy food children needed to thrive. So, free school meals is all the more important in that context. So, we had a situation where we had a lot of evidence, and sadly we had evidence of growing need as well, but what we didn't have was something which brought all that evidence together at a national level. And in particular, when we were talking to policymakers, you know, we were getting a question back, probably rightly, which is that expanding free school meals is potentially quite a costly policy, so what are those costs, and also what are the potential benefits in the short, medium and long term? And essentially, we didn't have an answer to that question, and that's why the technical and economic expertise of PwC was so important.

Stela: So, Thanh, could you tell us a bit more about the scope of the analysis? Like, for example, did you look at the whole of the UK, and what time period did your analysis cover?

Thanh: Yes, sure. As Mark has already alluded to, in terms of bridging the gap of a UK-wide analysis, to do so the work focused on England. And the reason for that is because the school food systems and funding models across the UK varied considerably, so doing a UK-wide analysis was difficult to do so. Another thing is entitlement to free school meals varies across countries. We've seen Wales and Scotland both having taken positive policy steps. So, in recent years, they've increased provision across primary schools in particular. So, for this reason our work draws upon some of this evidence, from policy reforms not only in the UK, but globally, as well as with the help of the findings from this research to inform similar research in going forward across the UK. So, to help bridge this gap, we worked with Impact on Urban Health, to construct a cost benefit assessment, looking at England over a 20 period, from 2025 to 2045. For those who aren't aware what a cost benefit assessment is, it's basically a practical technique that we use to quantify the cost and benefits associated with an intervention of interests, which in this case was the expansion of the free school meal programme. So, in essence, it helps to identify the benefits that can be generated through a pound spending essentially. How we went about doing this was we looked at two scenarios, with varying degrees of eligibility for free school meals. The first being extending the current provision to all households in receipt of universal credit. So, universal credit is essentially a payment to help with living costs for low-income households, or those that are not working at the moment. And the second scenario which we looked at was extending the free school meal programme to all pupils across all levels of state funded education.

Stela: And could you walk us through what were the differences in costs and benefits uncovered for these two scenarios?

Thanh: Yes. So, based on analysis we conducted, mostly we found a positive return on investments across the two expansion scenarios, as I already mentioned. In particular, for the universal credit scenario, we found that the benefit amounted to an estimated figure of £8.9 billion. This meant that, for every £1 that is invested into the programme, there is an expectation of £1.38 to be returned in the economy. The second scenario of universal free school meals, the benefit we estimated was the total £41.3 billion. This meant that for every £1 invested, there is an expectation of £1.71 in return. So, from this we were able to infer that extending free school meal provision not only benefits a child's health and makes them more productive going forward, but there is also an indication that the benefits can increase when a free school meal provision is expanded to all school children. So, providing a strong case for universal free school meal provision. On top of that, we also found that an additional £16.2 billion of wider economic benefit was expected. So, this captures the wider economy and supply chain impacts for the universal credit scenario. On the other hand, for the universal free school meal scenario, we found that a wider economic contribution of £58.2 billion, so significantly more in that, sort of, respect.

Stela: Yes, those are some very tangible benefits, it seems like. Really great to hear that. Mark, you mentioned that there have been data gaps in this field. Alia, I'd be interested to hear from you how you work together with Impact on Urban Health to address these gaps.

Alia: Sure. So, in terms of how we went about addressing the data gaps and building up the cost benefit model that Thanh mentioned, essentially, we took three steps. The first was actually a literature review, so, sort of, a desk-based review of existing research studies to collect data around what had already been done, particularly in Europe and in Sweden actually, looking at the benefits of, tracking benefits between free school meal provision and long-term benefits to individuals and society. And then the second element of the analysis was to build upon the desk-based analysis and was doing stakeholder interviews. So, we conducted around ten interviews across a variety of organisations in the school food sector. This included Impact on Urban Health's partners, so members from the School Food Review Group, including academics, NGOs, and local authorities. For example, spoke with Newham and Southwark, both of whom have universal free school meal provision at the primary sector, in order to understand their free school meal policy context, any areas of concern relating to the provision and extension. And actually, what that, sort of, collaboration indicated was that actually there is, there are some differences in cost and quality across the UK, but also abroad, and that does have an impact on benefits. So, there was a lot of, sort of, qualitative analysis that shaped our quantitative modelling, and informed the evidence base.

So having, sort of, done steps one and two, we then took the evidence from those and used that to create an impact pathway, which is linking the activities of an initiative, in this case free school meal provision, with benefits over time. And we worked collaboratively with our Monitoring and Evaluation team, in particular Emma Baker and Eric Ramadi, who conducted a workshop with of the stakeholders that we interviewed, and wider partners, in order to develop and test our impact pathway. In addition, we also had weekly catchups with Impact on Urban Health, so Mark, and the Impact on Urban Health team were very much involved in getting weekly updates, to help steer the direction of our analysis, and to be kept up to speed on emerging findings. This finally resulted in, as I said, a revised impact framework, and the evidence-based report that we produced, and has been published on Impact on Urban Health's website. And what the impact pathway in particular showed is that there is actually, sort of, three key areas of impact associated with free school meal provision. And that's around, sort of, educational attainment, and therefore long-term productivity benefits to individuals and, by inference, society. Long terms health outcomes.

We particularly looked at obesity and found a very clear correlation between free school meal provision, and particularly nutritious and healthy free school meal provision and, sort of, legit reduction in obesity, in long term obesity rates. And therefore, a saving to the NHS. And then also reduced household spending on food, particularly those struggling to pay the bills of fuel and food at the moment, with the cost-of-living crisis. And all of this was used to then form, as I said, part of our evidence-based report, and also a dissemination process, whereby we spoke with a number of local and central government stakeholders, to share the results from our analysis, as well as actually going back to those who had kindly shared their time and expertise as part of the stakeholder interview process, to inform them of the key findings. All of which, as Mark will no doubt go on to tell us, and, you know, discuss, is inform the debate and decisions regarding free school meal provision.

Stela: Yes, it sounds like you had a very collaborative approach with stakeholders. On the Impact on Urban Health, do you plan on using this research forward, and what can we expect to see in the future?

Mark: Yeah, I mean, so we're already using it a lot, is the short answer to that question. And so, as well as all the consultation that we did during development, which Alia just mentioned, which I'd emphasise was so important to the finished product, we used it in engagement once the report and the research was launched. So, both with our partners and our allies, who are influencing our school food as well, to, kind of, socialise the research with them. But also, as Alia mentioned, with key local policymakers and also national policymakers as well, from government departments. And, you know, that's already had a number of impacts. We talked about one already, with what's happened in London. It's been mentioned in parliament, it's been cited by a number of supportive MPs as well. And alongside that, you know, thanks to the brilliant work of the Impact on Urban Health comms team, and some of our partners, in particular led by the Food Foundation, there was a huge amount of national coverage which featured the findings of the reports. So, I think at this point it's been featured on the Today programme about six or seven times. We're, sort of, losing count. It was a key part of a campaign which was run by the Evening Standard and The Independent throughout the autumn, on free school meal expansion.

And there have been lots of other, kind of, bits of national and local coverage too. In terms of what comes next, I mean, we're using it as really the key bit of evidence in our own call for expansion of free school meals across the country, and in particular making the case ahead of the next general election. And I think what's been really pleasing and gratifying about the work is we're also seeing it being used by lots of our allies and our partners in the sector, in their own campaigning work as well. We really wanted this to be a resource for everyone working on the free school meal agenda, and it seems like it's moving in that direction as well. And, yes, I will just end, again, by emphasising that, you know, we're already seeing it have an impact. So, the fact that it was able to, kind of, arm the Mayor of London with a bit of economic credibility behind his big policy announcement was fantastic, and we hope that it will serve to play the same role both beyond this year and also beyond London, in years to come.

Stela: I guess it's just a really good case study of how well conducted research can have an impact on policy, policymaking.

Mark: Yes, and I think I would also say, you know, it's a fantastic piece of work in its own regard, but it also really fits in the context of what everyone else is doing. So, it really reflects all the work of our partner organisations, it builds on their evidence, it plays into their strengths. So, it's been so successful, partly because it's a really good bit of robust bit of work on its own, but also because it speaks to the needs and the opportunities of everyone who is working on free school meals throughout the country, I think.

Stela: Yes, definitely. Well, sadly that is all the time we have for this episode. It was extremely interesting to hear from the team. Thank you so much to our guests Alia, Mark and Thanh. It's been a pleasure to have you on today. If you'd like to read the report in more detail, you can find it on the Impact on Urban Health website. There will also be a link in the description of the podcast. And, of course, if you like this podcast, make sure you subscribe on iTunes and Spotify, to get notified of future episodes. Thank you all for listening and have a lovely day.

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