Free school meal

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A free school meal is a school meal provided to a child or young person during a school break at no cost. Very few countries provide these to all school children regardless of their ability to pay but many governments in developing countries especially are increasingly implementing free school meals to improve attendance rates and reduce malnutrition.[1]

Global picture[edit]

Sweden, Finland and Estonia are among the few countries that provide free school meals to all pupils in compulsory education regardless of their ability to pay.[2][3]

Free school meals are available to those who are eligible, from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in other high-income countries (with the exception of Australia where free school meals are not available) although in Scotland free school meals are available at the discretion of individual education departments of local authorities and in Spain, some children, but not many (figures not available) are entitled to free school meals (again, information on Germany and Canada was not obtained). Reduced price meals are also available to those who need a degree of assistance with costs in the Republic of Ireland, France, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan and the U.S.A.[2]

In India, the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education (NP-NSPE) scheme, deployed nationwide by 1998, 104 million children were covered in 1.16 million Schools during 2013-14.[4]

School feeding is also available in major South American countries such as Brazil, Chile and other low-income countries, but each program varies widely from country to country in design, implementation, and evaluation. Beyond improvements in access to food, schemes for School feeding in low-income countries also have a positive impact on nutritional status, gender equity, and educational status, each of which contributes to improving overall levels of country and human development.

Country Free School Meals
Estonia Estonia for all
Finland Finland for all
Sweden Sweden for all
United Kingdom UK only for some
United States USA only for some
India India for all Primary (I - V) and limited Upper Primary (VI to VIII)


Estonia provides free school meals to all pupils in compulsory education regardless of their ability to pay.[3]


Finland provides free school meals to all pupils from pre-primary to upper secondary education every school day, as guaranteed by legislation [5] starting from 1948.[6] Children taking part in before- and after-school activities are also served a free healthy snack.

Free school meals are seen as an investment for the future; the aim is to maintain and improve the health, well-being and learning of children.[7] The school meal is used as a pedagogical tool for teaching table manners, food culture and healthy eating habits as well as for increasing the consumption of vegetables, fruits and berries, full corn bread and skimmed or low fat milk.[8][9]


National and local regulations form the basis for Finnish school meal practices. Education acts and decrees[10][11][12] along with national core curricula[13] and local curricula are central documents governing school meals.[14] Local and school-level curricula define the central principles of arranging school catering. The curricula also describe the objectives for education in health, nutrition and manners. The health-related and social role of school meals, the objectives of nutritional education and learning of manners as well as the recreational aspect of lunch breaks are taken into account when arranging school meals and snacks.


School meals generally consist of typical Finnish foods. A basic school meal consists of a warm main course, vegetables, bread, table spread and a drink. The school lunch is calculated to equate about one third of a child’s daily food intake. School catering is designed to follow the dietary guidelines for schools issued by the National Nutrition Council.[15]

Catering at school canteens is provided on a self-service basis, so pupils put their own meals together. A model plate is often used to guide eating habits towards the recommendations:

  • fresh and cooked vegetables covering half of the plate
  • potatoes, rice, or pasta covering one quarter of the plate
  • fish at least once, preferably twice a week, or meat (alternatively beans and sprouts as part of a vegetarian diet) covering the remaining quarter of the plate
  • skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, fermented milk
  • water to quench the thirst[16]
  • bread with vegetable margarine or butter-margarine blend
  • berries or fruit for dessert

Students are allowed at least 30 minutes for eating, after which they have a short recess outdoors.


Pupils taking part in before- and after-school activities are entitled to a snack. Similarly to school lunches snacks are used as a pedagogical tool in teaching children about proper nutrition, table manners and food culture. Snacks are designed to offer variety and take into consideration Finnish Nutrition Recommendations[15] as well as children’s individual needs.

Special diets[edit]

Children with special dietary needs – whether in connection with religion, ethical beliefs or health issues – are entitled to a special diet. The goal in designing school menus is that the basic menu would be suitable for most students, with minor adjustments if needed. To ensure food safety and the elimination of possible cross-contamination, specific information on the child's dietary needs is required. In the case of health-related special diets, the assessment of a doctor, nurse or dietician is needed.[17]

Pedagogical elements[edit]

School meals are designed to support learning in connection with health, nutrition, food culture and table manners. One of the basic things is co-operation between students, headteachers, teachers, parents and catering staff. In many schools, students participate in the work of the school canteen during their working life practice period. Most schools have a school meal committee where students, teachers and caring staff develop school catering together. Most schools also welcome parents to come and taste school meals. There are always adults present in the school restaurant. The pedagogical role of the school catering staff is seen as important as well as teachers' knowledge of nutrition. Finland is developing school meal and nutrition education for teachers, and pedagogical education for school catering personal.[18]


Sweden provides free school meals to all pupils in compulsory education regardless of their ability to pay since 1973.[3][19]


In the UK, a free school meal is a school meal provided to a child or young person during a school break and paid for by Government.

For a child to qualify for a free school meal in England and Wales, their parent or carer must be receiving one of the qualifying benefits:[20]

A child in receipt of any of these qualifying benefits in their own right is also eligible to receive free school meals.

Free school meal applications are dealt with in different ways depending on the Local Authority in which the child’s school is located. Some Local Authorities provide a centralised application process, whilst in other authorities, individual schools deal with their parents/carers application. Usually the school caterer is informed of a pupil's eligibility by the school. It is unusual for pupils or their parents to be given physical cash for a meal.

In the past, when applying for a free school meal, parents had to present evidence of their qualifying benefit, usually in the form of a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or the Home Office. This was a slow, complex and time-consuming paper-based process. In October 2007, the Department for Education launched a pilot of the Free School Meals Eligibility Checking Service (ECS) for Local Authorities.

Local Authorities using the ECS can check applicants' eligibility without the need for claimants to submit evidence of qualifying benefits. The ECS checks against data from HMRC, DWP and Home Office to enable Local Authorities to verify a claimant's eligibility. The ECS gives Local Authorities no particular information about a claimant, it simply states whether or not a claimant is eligible. It gives no information regarding the particular type of benefit the claimant is receiving.

The ECS was rolled out to all Local Authorities in March 2008. 162 of the 174 English and Welsh Local Authorities have used the ECS. In September 2009, a ‘web service’ facility was made available on the ECS. This means that Local Authorities can now provide a seamless real-time eligibility checking service, allowing parents to apply online for free school meals in one quick, simple and easy process. Parents and Local Authorities are immediately informed of eligibility and with automated notification to schools, children can be provided with a free school meal as early as the following day. The ECS has helped Local Authorities to streamline their application processes and more importantly has helped over a million children access the benefit in a fast and efficient way.

As of September 2013, it was announced that all children in English schools in school years reception, one and two will be entitled to free school meals, costing the UK £600million per year. The government has no power to impose this on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but they will be provided with funding.[21]


The Liberal Government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman introduced measures which gave power for local councils to give free meals for children from poor families in 1906. By 1914, over 158,000 children were fed free meals once every day. However, the number was low in comparison with all the other poor children who needed free meals.[22]

The 1944 Education Act made it an entitlement for pupils to receive a free school meal. This entitlement was scaled back in 1949 when a flat charge of 2.5 pence was introduced. Over the next thirty years this flat fee was gradually increased, until in 1980, legislation was introduced to remove the requirement for Local Education Authorities to provide a meal for every pupil. Since that date, authorities have been obliged only to provide a meal to those pupils who are eligible for a free meal.[23]

In 2004 14.3% of pupils in English schools were eligible for Free School Meals [24]

In 2013 19.6% of Scottish Pupils were eligible for free school meals [25]

School league tables[edit]

The percentage of children eligible for free school meals in an area is thought to be a fair measure of deprivation.[citation needed] This figure is therefore used in conjunction with the scores children achieve in SATs, GCSEs and A-levels to determine a school's position in the local and national league tables. If two schools get their children to the same scores, the school with the most children eligible for free school meals is judged to have done a better job, as it has been likely to be teaching children with access to fewer resources and less home encouragement.[citation needed]

Scotland (United Kingdom)[edit]

Frances Curran MSP led a broad campaign with widespread support through many children's and anti-poverty organisations to provide free nutritious meals for all Scottish schoolchildren to tackle the problems of poor diet among Scottish schoolchildren.[26] A bill to this effect was proposed in parliament in 2002 but was defeated. A subsequent Scottish Executive consultation which found that 96% of respondents were in favour of free school meals. The SNP introduced free school meals for the first three years of primary schooling as a pilot project in 2007.


Free school meals can be seen as stigmatising to those pupils involved; studies have shown that many of those entitled to free meals do not take them and it can have a negative effect on those that do. Another problem is that not all those children who could benefit from the scheme qualify for it. Organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group have called for school meals to be made free for all pupils to tackle the problems mentioned above. In the United States of America, tests of these free-school-meal-to-all programs have been funded by Share Our Strength in some school districts.[27]

United States of America[edit]

School meal programs in the United States provide school meals freely, or at a subsidized price, to the children of low income families.


Main article: Midday_Meal_Scheme

The Midday Meal Scheme is a school meal programme of the Government of India designed to improve the nutritional status of school-age children nationwide. The programme supplies free lunches on working days for children in Primary and Upper Primary Classes in Government, Government Aided, Local Body, Education Guaranteed Scheme, and Alternative Education Centres, Madarsa and Maqtabs under Sarva Shiksa Abhiyan, and National Child Labour Project run by the Ministry of Labour. Serving 120,000,000 children in over 1,265,000 schools and Education Guarantee Scheme centres, it is the largest such programme in the world.

Other Low-Income Countries[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "School meals". World Food Programme. Retrieved 14 April 2015. 
  2. ^ a b "The provision of school food in 18 countries" (PDF). 
  3. ^ a b c "The Swedish School Meal as Public Meal". 
  4. ^ "About the Indian Mid Day Meal Scheme". 
  5. ^ The Finnish National Board of Education: Legislation on Finnish school meals
  6. ^ The Finnish National Board of Education: History of Finnish School Meals
  7. ^ School Meals in Finland - Investment in Learning
  8. ^ Finnish Nutrition Recommendations in Finnish
  9. ^ Finnish Nutrition Recommendations in English
  10. ^ The Basic Education Act (628/1998)
  11. ^ The General Upper Secondary Schools Act (629/1998)
  12. ^ The Vocational Education and Training Act (630/1998)
  13. ^ The National Core Curricula for education
  14. ^ The National Core Curricula for Before- and After-School Activities
  15. ^ a b Finnish Nutrition Recommendations for School Meals
  16. ^ Finnish Nutrition Recommendations for Drinks
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ "Apply for free school meals". Gov.Uk. Retrieved 28 December 2013. 
  21. ^
  22. ^ OCR British Depth Study 1906-1918 by Colin Shephard & Rosemary Rees (2002) ISBN 0-7195-7734-9
  23. ^ "The Case for Free School Meals" (PDF). Child Poverty Action Group. Retrieved 14 January 2007. 
  24. ^ "Wasted talent? Attrition rates of high-achieving pupils between school and university" (PDF). The Sutton Trust. 2008. Retrieved 30 June 2009. [dead link]
  25. ^
  26. ^ Campaign for Free School Meals - Scottish Executive School Meals Bill
  27. ^ "State Partnerships to End Childhood Hunger in America". Share Our Strength. 2009.

  • Will McMahon, Tim Marsh (1999). Filling the Gap: free school meals, nutrition and poverty. Child Poverty Action Group. p. 48. ISBN 1-901698-25-4.