By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


One purpose of the welfare state is to ensure that all children have a nutritious lunch during the school day, regardless of their socio-economic background.

Children from households receiving different types of benefits are entitled to a free school meal, which should in theory mean that no child spends their school day hungry. Whether their parents or guardians are in a financial position to pay, or state support steps in, every child should be provided for.

Living below the poverty line

But as the cost of living crisis forces families to tighten often already tight belts, LACA, a professional body representing members from the school food sector, reported recently that 57% of their members have seen a drop in the uptake of paid meals.

According to LACA, “This indicates that many children are now falling through the cracks due to the cost of living crisis.” Currently, children from households which receive Universal Credit are only eligible if the household income before benefits is less than £7, 400. Last month the Big Issue reported that a recommendation was made to the government, by the lead adviser on the national food strategy, to extend this threshold to £20,000. The recommendation was ignored.

This change would have made 1.1 million extra children eligible for a free school meal, and research by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), alongside LACA’s findings, shows these children are in need. CPAG reported that, prior to the pandemic, 1.3 million children were in families in low paid work and living below the poverty line, but were still not entitled to free school meals.

As the cost of living crisis unfolds, and food prices threaten to increase even more over the summer, it’s not hard to imagine that the number of children not provided for will have increased when the new school year begins in autumn. 

A barrier to equal education

That any child may go hungry at school is an unjust and unacceptable state of affairs in one of the richest countries in the world for a myriad of reasons. One of which is that being fed plenty of nutritious food and responding well to education are inextricably linked. Children from disadvantage background already face obstacles to an equal education, sitting in lessons with an empty stomach presents yet another.

There is plenty of research out there which explores why being well-fed is essential for educational attainment. The Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning published a report entitled What is the relationship between child nutrition and school outcomes?

It found that:

“Maintaining adequate levels of glucose throughout the day contributes to optimising cognition. These findings have implications for the appropriate timing of meals and snacks through the school day.”

Children skipping lunch are not being given the same opportunity to concentrate and benefit from lessons.

The report also found that deficiencies in certain vitamins can negatively impact children’s behaviour, further impact their chances of high attainment:  

“Lack of thiamin (Vitamin B) in the diet appears to have causal relationship with behavioural problems in adolescents, such as irritability, aggressive behaviour and personality changes.”

It also cited other bodies of research that have found a correlation between iron deficiency and lower maths test results.

Another study entitled Nutrition and Students’ Academic Performance reported that “students with less nutritious diets performed worse on a standardized literary assessment”. It also examined the fact that poor nutrition can lead to illnesses which could affect school attendance.

Cycle of poverty

This is another issue that creates a cycle of poverty. Studies shows that children who grow up in poverty, which by its nature involves not having access to enough nutritious food, typically earn less as adults, are less likely to employed and are more likely to experience poor health.

A country which doesn’t ensure that all its children are given access to the same opportunities to enjoy and benefit from their education and create building blocks for a safe and secure future is a country which is failing not just disadvantaged children, but everyone.

Diversity and inclusion are essential for a progressive society, for new ideas and innovations that benefit all its members, but a diverse and inclusive adult population is predicated on equal opportunity in childhood, which itself is predicated on a three healthy meals a day.

As one school year ends, actions need to be taken to make sure that in the next year, the lunch bell means lunchtime for every child.