What England can learn from Portugal’s school meals system

What England can learn from Portugal’s school meals system
Rebecca O’Connell, SFM Chair of Trustees
11 March 2024
An estimated 4.2 million UK children are growing up in poverty, according to government figures. That’s about one-third of children. Rising levels of poverty and food insecurity have underscored the vital role of school food as a lifeline for many children, serving as their main source of nutrition each day.

To give us further insights into the effects of poverty on children’s diet and the value of school meals, we spoke with Rebecca O’Connell, SFM Chair of Trustees and Professor of Food, Families and Society at the University of Hertfordshire. Here Professor O’Connell talks us through the groundbreaking comparative study she and colleagues carried out on this topic, spanning England, Norway, and Portugal.

What originally interested you in studying the impacts of school meals on children and their families?

In 2012, it became apparent that there were rising levels of food insecurity in this country, and in the Global North more generally, but there was very little data on food insecurity at the time. Instead of data, indicators came in the form of new reports about children turning up at school hungry, about parents being forced to choose between heating and eating, and of growing numbers of food banks. 

Some studies highlighted the experience of low-income families and their ability to manage food in the context of poverty, but they mainly focused on the experiences of mothers. We wanted to bring children’s experiences of poverty into the limelight. Oftentimes children’s needs are being discussed and decisions made on their behalf without inviting them into the conversation so their voices can be heard as a part of the solution.

How did you select your three countries?  

We wanted to assess the extent of food insecurity and its impact on children and families in the context of the 2008 global economic crisis and the austerity measures that followed. One of the best ways to understand the impact of policy is to gain a comparative perspective. So, we chose to investigate three countries that had differing levels of social support, economic development, and levels of child poverty. We did not know at the time we designed the study that the three countries’ school meals policies were also contrasting.

We selected England, a very well-off country, but with high levels of inequality that had implemented austerity measures from 2010, which meant a reduction to the welfare state. Free school meals are means-tested for children in Year 3 and above but there is an extremely low eligibility threshold, meaning many children living in poverty miss out.

We also chose Portugal, a much poorer Southern European country which similarly implemented austerity measures and has high levels of inequalities but has until quite recently been a mainly agricultural economy. Food is very central to its cultural identity, which also makes it an interesting comparison. Portugal has a three-tier payment system for school meals, with food being either partially or fully subsidised for poorer families.

Our final comparison was Norway, which is a much more egalitarian country with significantly lower levels of poverty, including among children. It’s also different in that it wasn’t severely affected by the 2008 global financial crash and didn’t go down the austerity route. Schools in Norway do not generally provide meals, meaning children bring in packed lunches.

Did anything surprise you about the impact of a free school meal in your research?

School food provision emerged as an important resource for low-income families. During analysis, we looked at the proportion of children from families in poverty who were receiving free school meals in Portugal, Norway and England. The differences between countries were quite stark. In Portugal, only four out of 46 secondary school-aged students we interviewed were not receiving a free school meal, either fully or partly subsidised. In England, that number was much higher at 23 out of 46. 

One case study in your paper highlighted the experience of Maddie, a London-based secondary school student. Can you tell us more about her experience?

The profound effects of poverty on children were starkly evident in our research – not only in terms of material deprivation and hunger but also social exclusion. Children in Portugal didn't talk about feeling socially excluded in relation to school meals, but when we spoke to children in England, their anxiety around social exclusion came through quite clearly. They spoke a lot about feelings of being stigmatised, being different, being left out, and being identified and publicly shamed.

Maddie spoke about how her free school meals status put an automatic limit on her card at the school cafeteria checkout. At the time, the limit was only £2.20. One day, Maddie accidentally went over the £2.20 limit and the school staff had to tell her she was not allowed to purchase the items she selected. She said she felt so embarrassed because the kids behind her could hear the conversation. After the incident, Maddie purchased only a baguette each day because she knew it was what she could afford.

There were other issues too. In some schools, you could use your school meal allowance during break time, but in others, this was not the case. The children in the schools where this was not allowed might have been hungry during break time but weren’t allowed to buy any food to fill them up.

Some people argue that it’s only the parents' responsibility to feed children, not the state’s. You spoke with parents struggling but doing everything they could to ensure their children didn’t go hungry. So how would you respond to this claim?

The idea that parents aren’t doing enough to fulfil their responsibility to feed their children is a highly inaccurate claim. People who are living on low incomes are almost always actively managing their situations in creative ways. There's a kind of assumption that low-income people need lessons on how to budget, but oftentimes it is people with limited budgets who are the most aware of grocery costs, how they spend their money and what is in their bank account. It's a complete misinterpretation to say that people living in these conditions are not actively resisting or trying to improve their situations. Unfortunately, though, people living in this condition can experience depression, and feel ashamed, and this can mean they feel unable to ask for help when needed. 

We saw so many cases of parents putting their children first. Parents facing this situation often compensate to try and protect their children. For one family we spoke with, their mother was not receiving any government benefits, so she had to rely on money received from a local church. The mother gave half of this small amount of money to her daughter to have at school so she could buy something when her friends were buying something. People assume that the material things in life get prioritised, but dignity and social reputation can sometimes be prioritised as well, especially by parents for their children, because they don't want their children to be excluded.

During our interviews with children and young people in each country, we asked them whose responsibility it is to make sure they eat well. They nearly always said they expect parents to assume this responsibility, but they made it clear that when parents are unable to provide then it's the duty of the government and schools to step in. It's a sad situation when young people must moderate their needs, making daily decisions to go without a meal or not ask for food when they are hungry because they know their family cannot afford it and they don’t want to hurt their parents' feelings. Children and young people recognise that parents are doing all they can, but are facing an impossible situation. 

What are your thoughts on how the universal take-up of free school meals can impact whole communities?  

The government needs to start seeing free school meals as an investment rather than a cost. We know from evidence by PwC and others that the social return on investment for universal free school meals is massive. By feeding children, you're contributing to family food security. Also, when we pay people properly to work in schools and deliver the food, we’re investing in community wealth. This kind of ripple effect goes way beyond the individual child and their nutrition. Investment in free school meals is creating a food environment where children can grow up well. There is huge potential here.

Your study highlights that access to food is fundamentally a human right. Can you talk about that?

The right to food includes the ability to access food in a dignified way that meets people’s customary and health needs, which also applies to a school context. Our study showed how Portugal’s national school meals policy provided not only greater uniformity of access between children but also higher quality food.

England can learn much from Portugal and, given our relative wealth, we can go further. Nutritious school meals should be routinely provided free for all children throughout compulsory schooling, without stigma or means testing.

What do you consider to be the most important changes needed in England to help families experiencing poverty and food insecurity?

It can be difficult to find hope in the current climate, but I think school meals are an important part of the solution. We need to ensure families are able to afford a diet that meets customary norms and healthy eating guidelines and allows them to participate in society.

We already have an established methodology for calculating what a family needs to live a dignified life through Loughborough University’s calculations of the Minimum Income Standard (MIS). Our recommendation would be that the government uses the MIS to calculate benefits as well as wages. We would also recommend, and have recommended since 2019, that school meals be made universally available. Schools shouldn't be places that reproduce the inequalities that characterise our society. They should be places that challenge those inequalities.

 

We at School Food Matters could not agree more with Professor O’Connell and her esteemed colleagues. That final point says it all. We should be shielding children from hunger, inequality and stigma and instead making sure they have access to the nutrition they need to thrive at school. We can do that and more by introducing school food for all, and we, along with our long list of partners, continue to call on the government to make this vital change.

The research: Families and Food in Hard Times, was funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/ 2007– 2013), ERC grant agreement number 337977. You can access the full research here.