School food facts

Navigating and understanding the school food system can be a challenge, so we’ve collated important facts and stats below for your convenience.

Food education

In England, food education forms part of the national curriculum, which applies to local-authority-maintained schools.

The curriculum states that ‘pupils should be taught how to cook and apply the principles of nutrition and healthy eating’. By the end of key stage 3, students are expected to learn how to cook a repertoire of dishes ‘so that they are able to feed themselves and others a healthy and varied diet’.

Food education similarly falls within the national curriculum for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Food used to be offered as an A-level subject in England, but it was axed by the Department for Education (DfE) following extensive reforms in 2016.

The National Food Strategy called for A-level food to be reinstated and for ‘sensory food education’ to be added to the curriculum for nursery and reception classes.

A 2014 British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) survey of school children revealed great confusion around where food comes from. For example, it found:

  • A quarter (25%) of 5-8-year-olds think bread comes from animals
  • Over a quarter (26%) of 5-8-year-olds and 22% of 8-11-year-olds think cheese comes from plants

SFM provides a range of fully funded food education programmes to schools. Learn more about our projects here.

  • Children learning to cook
    Children learning to cook
  • Children learning to cook
    Children learning to cook
  • Children learning to cook
    Children learning to cook

Obesity

The latest National Child Measurement Programme figures (2020/21) by NHS Digital show:

  • Among children aged 4-5 in England, 14.4% are living with obesity (up from 9.9% in 2019/20)
  • Among children aged 10-11, 25.5% are living with obesity (up from 21% in 2019/20)
  • Children living in the poorest areas are more than twice as likely to have obesity compared to those living in the most affluent areas (20.3% vs 7.8% among 4-5s and 33.8% vs 14.3% in 10-11s)

According to Diabetes UK, around 4.7 million people in Britain have diabetes, including 36,000 children aged under 19.

SFM’s Healthy Zones programme works to tackle childhood obesity by creating sustained changes to school food environments. Learn more here.

Fruit and veg consumption

Only 12% of 11–18-year-olds consume five fruit and veg a day, as recommended, while for adults that figure is 33%, according to Government figures.

The School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme (SFVS) provides a free piece of fruit or veg to every 4-6-year-old who attends a fully state-funded primary, infant or special school.

A Peas Please report shows affordability remains a ‘key barrier’ to people buying veg, with the wealthiest 20% accessing one portion of veg more a day than the poorest 20%, who are also much more likely to not get any veg.

  • Children eating fresh fruit and veg
    Children eating fresh fruit and veg
  • Children eating fresh fruit and veg
    Children eating fresh fruit and veg
  • Children eating fresh fruit and veg
    Children eating fresh fruit and veg

School food standards

Since 2015, the School Food Standards have been mandatory in all schools, with the aim of ensuring that children don’t get offered junk food and can eat well at school.

These standards, for example, place limits on serving deep-fried food, snacks and sugary drinks and ensure children are offered at least one portion of vegetables or salad and at least one portion of fruit each day.

In 2019, the Department for Education (DfE) announced the 'beta phase' for its voluntary Healthy Schools Rating Scheme, which is used to evaluate how schools are supporting children to keep themselves healthy.

In a 2019 SFM survey of parents, school staff and governors, 85% of respondents agreed the Healthy Schools Rating Scheme should be made mandatory and 72% said Ofsted should monitor it.

  • School canteen
    School canteen
  • School canteen
    School canteen
  • School canteen
    School canteen

Access to food

In 2019/20, just under 4.3 million UK children were estimated to be growing up in poverty, according to Government figures. That’s about one-third of children.

‘Food insecurity’ describes a lack of regular access to enough nutritious food. In 2019/20, 8% of UK households were living in low food security, according to an annual Department for Work and Pensions survey. Among households receiving universal credit, 43% said they experienced food insecurity.

Impact of Covid:

During the Covid pandemic, reliance on food banks reached ‘record’ high levels, with the Trussell Trust’s UK-wide network distributing 2.5 million emergency food parcels to people in crisis in 2020/21 - a 33% increase on the previous year. Of that number, 980,000 went to children.

In light of the Marcus Rashford campaign, the Government expanded the Holiday Activity and Food (HAF) programme to all local authorities across England in 2021. In October 2021, the government announced £200m a year for the scheme to continue.

During Covid, School Food Matters also switched focus from educating children and schools about healthy food to distributing food parcels in response to the crisis, delivering more than one million breakfasts to vulnerable families across London to date.

  • SFM's Breakfast Box programme
    SFM's Breakfast Box programme
  • SFM's Breakfast Box programme
    SFM's Breakfast Box programme
  • SFM's Breakfast Box programme
    SFM's Breakfast Box programme

Free school meals criteria

Children in England whose parents receive the following benefits are entitled to free school meals:

  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • The guaranteed element of Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit (provided parents are not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)
  • Working Tax Credit run-on - paid for 4 weeks after parents stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit - household income must be less than £7,400 a year after tax (excluding any benefits)

The criteria differ slightly in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Universal free school meals

In England, all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 attending a government-funded school are entitled to free school meals regardless of household income under universal infant free school meals.

Four local authorities in England currently fund free school meals for all primary school students - the London boroughs of Newham, Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets.

In Scotland, all children in Primary 1 to 4 can get free school meals, extending to P5 students in January 2022 and P6&7 pupils by August 2022, under current plans.

Free school meals statistics

Number of pupils eligible for free school meals (latest available figures):

England: 1,737,598 (20.8%)

Wales: 88,073 (23.3%)

Scotland: Figure not available (only publishes FSM registration statistics)

Northern Ireland: 97,631 (28.4%)

In England, 427,000 pupils have become eligible for free school meals since the first national lockdown began in March 2020.

  • School meals
    School meals
  • School meals
    School meals
  • School meals
    School meals