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.

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.

In April 2022, the government permanently extended free school meal eligibility in England to children from families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF), subject to maximum income thresholds.

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 (UIFSM).

In February, the Mayor of London announced funding for all Key Stage 2 (Years 3 - 6) children in London schools to receive free school meals for the 2023/2024 academic year to help families with the spiralling cost of living crisis.

A handful of London boroughs, which were already funding free school meals for all KS2 children, have decided to use the additional funding to extend free school meals to even more pupils. They include Westminster, which will fund additional meals for those in early years settings and in Key Stage 3. Tower Hamlets will become the first local authority in the country to provide truly universal free school meals.

In Scotland, all children in Primary 1 to 5 can get free school meals. Plans to extend to P6 and 7 children have been delayed. Wales is also currently rolling out Universal Primary Free School Meals.

A 2020 study evaluating the impact of introducing UIFSM in England found:

  • The number of non-FSM-registered children eating school meals rose from a consistent 30-35% pre-UIFSM to 85% after it was introduced.
  • Making high quality school meals free on a universal basis reduces children’s body weight throughout the first year of school, decreasing rates of obesity.
  • UIFSM helps families not otherwise registered for FSM save money on food - roughly £20 per month, helping to deal with the cost of living.

Case for expanding free school meals eligibility

In England, 900,000 (1 in 3) children in poverty do not qualify for free school meals, analysis by Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) shows.

As part of the School Food Review, Impact on Urban Health commissioned PwC to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of extending free school meals.

The analysis looked at two scenarios, both of which produce positive returns on investment, over a 20-year period. The conservative estimates are that:

  1. Extending to those on universal credit will cost £6.4 billion and return £25.1 billion
  2. Extending to all schoolchildren will cost £24.2 billion and return £99.5 billion

Most people (68%) support initially extending free school meals to all families receiving Universal Credit, and then to all children in primary and secondary education (polling by Public First).

A pilot study in Hammersmith and Fulham found that providing free school meals for all secondary school pupils is a ‘feasible’ intervention for increasing access to healthy food, reducing food insecurity, and improving nutrition.

Just 1.6% of packed lunches meet the same nutritional standards set for school food, research from University of Leeds has found. Less than a fifth (17%) of packed lunches contain any vegetables or salad, while more than half (52%) contain too many sweet snacks.

Free school meals statistics

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

England: 2,019,509 (23.8%)

Wales85,057 (22.2%)

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

Northern Ireland: 96,300 (27.7%)

Funding for free school meals in England 2023/4

  • £2.53 for universal infant free school meals and further education free school meals
  • £2.53 for means-tested free school meals (until further education)
  • £2.65 per meal for Mayor of London funded meals (all KS2)
  • School meals
    School meals
  • School meals
    School meals
  • School meals
    School meals

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) launched its voluntary Healthy Schools Rating Scheme, which is used to evaluate how schools are supporting children’s health and wellbeing.

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 2021/22, 4.2 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 2021/22, 7% of UK households were food insecure, according to an annual Department for Work and Pensions survey. Among households receiving universal credit, that figure was 31%.

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.

  • 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


The latest National Child Measurement Programme figures (2022/23) by NHS Digital show:

  • Among children aged 4-5 in England, 9.2% are living with obesity. This has decreased from 10.1% in 2021/22.
  • Among children aged 10-11, 22.7% are living with obesity. This has decreased from 23.4% in 2021/22.

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 these health inequalities 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

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.

Henry Dimbleby’s 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. Neither has been incorporated into the government’s Food Strategy.

A 2020 British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) survey of food teachers revealed:

  • Most secondary school food teachers believe removing A-level food has taken away a clear route of progression for GCSE students with a passion for food. 
  • There is considerable student interest in A-level food.
  • Removing A-level food has led to a reduction in food and nutrition education at KS3 level and funding for teaching food in many schools.

A 2014 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 on farm trip
    Children on farm trip
  • Children growing fruit and veg at school
    Children growing fruit and veg at school