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This House of Commons Library briefing looks at the requirements on schools to provide nutritional meals, and the provision of free school meals.

This briefing relates to England only.

School food standards

Nutritional standards are in place for school meals in England, aimed at ensuring that the food provided to pupils in school is nutritious and of high quality, and to promote good health and eating behaviour amongst pupils.  Following an independent review of school food conducted by the founders of Leon restaurants in 2012-13, revised school food standards were produced and have been in force since January 2015.

The standards apply to:

  • all local authority maintained schools
  • pupil referral units
  • academies that opened prior to 2010
  • academies and free schools with agreed funding from June 2014
  • non-maintained special schools

Academies that opened from 2010 and agreed funding prior to June 2014 are not bound by the standards, although the previous Government stated that almost all of these schools would adhere to the standards voluntarily.

Funding for school meals is largely provided from the Dedicated Schools Grant.

Free school meals

Free school meals are provided for children whose parents receive certain benefits (or who are on those benefits themselves):

  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseekers Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • The guaranteed element of State Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit (provided they 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 a person stops qualifying for Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit – with household income of less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits) from 1 April 2018, with transitional protections for existing claimants

Free school meals may also be available to pre-school children and those in school sixth forms.  Local authorities are responsible for providing free school lunches and applications must be made through the relevant local body.

Since September 2014, free school meals have been provided for all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2.  Concerns have been raised that, as schools receive Pupil Premium funding for pupils registered for free school meals, this additional provision may reduce schools’ funding if parents do not register their children for meals they receive as a matter of course. 

School meals during the Coronavirus pandemic

During the coronavirus pandemic schools have been closed to most pupils, and meals or food vouchers have been provided to children staying at home. There have been concerns about how the voucher system has operated, and whether it will operate during school holidays. Vouchers were provided during the 2020 Easter and May half term holidays, and will continue to be available during the summer break.

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