Free school meals uptake: Removing the barriers

Written by: Georgina Burt | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There are still a number of barriers that put children and families off applying for and taking up free school meals. Georgina Burt advises on how schools can remove some of these barriers

The pandemic has placed a spotlight on free school meal (FSM) provision in schools, as many of you will be painfully aware.

The debates about whether or not lunches should be provided only during term-time or extended to school holidays, uproar about the quality of packed lunches provided during school closures, and footballer Marcus Rashford’s on-going campaign have all ensured that child poverty remains high on the agenda.

FSMs are a crucial form of support for children and families experiencing poverty and research suggests that the number of children eligible is continuing to increase (Headteacher Update, 2020).

At the same time, a recent report from Child Poverty Action Group, the North East Child Poverty Commission, and Children North East (2021) warns that across the North East, only 89 per cent of eligible pupils are registered for FSMs (103,000 against 116,000 who are eligible).

The research highlighted that some families simply do not know they are eligible, while others are afraid of stigma from claiming FSM, and it offered some important lessons for schools about the barriers that can be created by how FSMs are delivered.

Ultimately, it has never been more important that we get FSM provision right in our schools. At Children North East, we have been “poverty-proofing” schools for 10 years, and as part of this process we have spoken to thousands of children in hundreds of schools across the UK to understand what school is like for children who are growing up in poverty.

One of the most popular topics for children and young people to talk to our team about is food.

As such, we want to offer some straight-forward and practical ways that schools can provide FSM without unintentionally stigmatising children and young people.

Be discreet

Ensuring that FSM provision is handled with discretion so that children and young people are not made aware of who, among their peers, receive FSMs is central to all best practice around this topic.

Many parents have shared their reluctance to check their child’s FSM eligibility because they have memories from their own time at school of being given a food voucher or asked to stand in a separate queue in the dining hall, in full view of their peers. From our experience, children in schools are often still aware of which of their peers are in receipt of FSMs.

However, many schools are far more conscious of the impact of this, and have much better procedures in place to make sure that the FSM status of a child remains private. Some of these are:

  • If you can, use cashless and online payment systems which are excellent ways of making payment processes look identical for those paying for school lunches and those receiving FSMs.
  • Check carefully for any parts of the payment system which may inadvertently reveal this information – some payment points show “FSM” on the display and students tend to notice.
  • Remind staff not to share with students any lists or registers that will divulge FSM status, such as when presenting on a smartboard.

Choice and autonomy

Processes around FSM provision and the way money is allocated to student accounts can limit the choice and autonomy that they have around food options at school.

There are some really straight-forward ways that schools can ensure that FSM young people have the same lunchtime experiences as their peers:

  • Allow students to spend FSM money at breakfast and break time. Ensure that money is credited to their account in the morning so that it can be used at any point in the school day. This is a great way of supporting those who may not have had breakfast or who may prefer to eat earlier if they are attending extra-curricular opportunities at lunchtime. It also allows them the same experience as their peers.
  • Ensure that students on FSMs can purchase the full range of lunch options within their allowance. In some schools, lunch meal deal options still cost more than the allocated FSM allowance.
  • Think about the quality and quantity of food available. While it is expected that older students will have a bigger appetite than younger ones, this may not be the case. Ask students for feedback about the food choices available and what influences their food choices in school. This can be very illuminating!
  • Some schools will credit students’ accounts with FSM money for the full week, rather than giving a daily amount. This gives students more autonomy over how they spend it, allowing them to purchase larger meals or extra items on days when they may be hungrier, while also encouraging them to budget.
  • Allow those on packed lunches and school dinners to sit together in the dining hall so that pupils on FSMs are not excluded from sitting with friends who have brought a packed lunch.

Outside of school

The most common way students know which of their class mates are in receipt of FSMs is when trips and visits outside of school are organised. On these days, FSMs are usually highly visible because they are provided in a brown or white paper bag.

We have heard repeatedly from children and young people that they do not take the FSM lunch on trip days as it makes them stand out among their peers and often does not include food that they themselves have chosen. There are practical ways round this:

  • Encourage all pupils, not just those eligible for FSMs, to take a school packed lunch on school trips – including staff. Some schools have made the lunch part of the trip by hosting a picnic. It is even better if this is started in primary schools with the Universal Infant FSM entitlement.
  • Give pupils a choice on what is included in the school packed lunch, and ask all pupils to pre-order sandwiches.
  • If staff are handing out lunches for school trips and visits ask them not to refer to them as the “free” school lunch.
  • If a trip is going to include a stop at a café or restaurant where pupils will be able to purchase their own lunches, consider how FSM pupils can take part.
  • Explore options with businesses to provide lunches to FSM pupils when they are on work experience placements. Some businesses will provide lunch so that students do not miss out on this entitlement when they are outside of school.

Unspent money

As mentioned above, our recent research has shown that not all children who are eligible for FSM take-up their eligibility. This issue is twofold. First, families that are eligible do not apply. Second, families do apply, but their children opt not to take a school lunch.

Tyne and Wear Citizens have launched a “Just Change” campaign to identify where the “missing” FSM money is and how it could be utilised. Individual schools should explore what this looks like in their settings by considering the following:

  • Explore how many pupils who are eligible for FSMs do not take up their entitlement and how much money this equates to. Work with students and families to understand why they are not utilising their entitlement.
  • Consider how unspent FSM money is utilised at your school. For example, some schools allow the money to roll-over so that, if students are absent for a day, it is available on their return the next day.

Not even eligible…

Finally, it is really important to recognise that the criteria for families to be eligible for FSMs is not the same measure used to identify those children and young people who are growing up in poverty.

As a result, many children living in families who are finding things challenging financially are not even eligible for FSMs.

Indeed, the research cited earlier also found that one in four children experiencing poverty in our region is not eligible for FSM support.

We have called on the government to restore the previous FSM eligibility threshold (in place prior to April 2018), which included all families in receipt of Universal Credit, and extend FSMs to all those on equivalent benefits. This would provide FSMs to an additional 1.8 million children across the UK.

Until this happens, the challenge for schools is to understand and identify who these children and families are and think creatively about ways to offer support to those who sit just outside of the eligibility thresholds too.

  • Georgina Burt is school research and delivery practitioner with Children North East, a charity which works to improve the lives of babies, children and young people in the North East of England. Visit

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