11th April 2022

As food poverty is set to soar, how many free school meals reach under-fives?

The cost of living crisis and food poverty

Families on low-incomes have been hit from all angles recently and now face mounting cost of living pressures. The long-term reduction in benefits for families with children, combined with the rising cost of food and energy bills (highest inflation rate in 40 years), and a Spring Statement that focused more on middle and top income households, will mean that families on low-incomes will bear the brunt of this cost of living crisis and increasingly will struggle to afford essentials.

The Resolution Foundation predicts that an additional 1.3 million people will be pulled into poverty next year, including 500,000 children.  As many families will have to make the decision between heating and eating more children will be faced with food poverty. This means they will lack access to a sufficient amount of food that is nutritionally adequate. This comes after food poverty has already increased since the pandemic: the Food Foundation estimates that in January 2022 over 2.5 million children had experienced food insecurity in the last six months, and food insecurity reached the highest level yet, affecting 10.8% of households compared to 7.6% of households before the pandemic.

Why are free school meals important?

The wide-reaching impacts of food poverty cannot be underestimated. Food poverty is detrimental for children’s physical health and is associated with higher rates of obesity – a problem that has been worsening and is a cause for concern in early years settings. Additionally, food poverty has a negative impact on the home environment, with parents often skipping meals to protect children, and experiencing higher levels of stress which can have negative impacts on parents’ mental health and knock-on effects on parenting. Food poverty also adversely affects children’s education, and is associated with poorer concentration at school, worse attendance and worse learning outcomes, as well as stigma and bullying.

Free school meals (FSM) are an important policy tool for addressing food poverty, by ensuring at least one full meal is provided to children during the school day. Primary and secondary school children are eligible for FSM if their parents receive a qualifying benefit (including universal credit if their income is below £7,400). Since 2014 FSM eligibility in England has been expanded to include all children in reception to year two.  This is not a perfect policy – and there are still children in poverty who miss out, however, there have been welcome changes recently with the decision to permanently extend FSM to children in families with no recourse to public funds, provided they meet eligibility criteria.  Importantly, evidence shows that FSM makes a positive difference to children’s physical health, attendance and attainment.

How many children receive free school meals in nursery?

However, it is in fact families with the youngest children who are at highest risk of poverty, so what is being done for children before reception age?  Children attending maintained sector (state funded) nurseries are also eligible for FSM if they meet the same eligibility criteria, with the additional condition that the child attends nursery before and after lunchtime.

But how many children does this policy reach? This partly depends on how many eligible children are in maintained sector nurseries – we know that the majority of children enrolled in early childhood education and care (ECEC) attend private, voluntary and independent (PVI) settings who are not required to provide FSM, although it is also true that maintained sector nurseries have a higher share of children from lower income families. We might also expect nursery FSM to reach fewer children because nurseries do not have the same incentives as schools to register children, as FSM are not attached to early years pupil premium funding (whereas FSM in primary and secondary schools directs pupil premium funding). Additionally, the requirement for children to attend before and after lunch may be restrictive for families seeking to use their free entitlement hours across multiple days.


Chart 1: Number of maintained sector nursery children eligible for free school meals


Chart 2: Percentage of maintained sector nursery children eligible for FSM compared to percentage of FSM eligible reception children

Source: Department for Education freedom of information request FOI2021-0048554, based on Spring School Census data


Unlike FSM for school-aged children, statistics on nursery FSM eligibility are not publicly available. Data from a freedom of information request from EPI to the Department for Education shows that a growing number of nursery children receive FSM and these numbers aren’t small. Around 23,600 nursery children (aged two and three at the start of the school year) were recorded as FSM eligible in 2020/21. When we look at the percentage of all those in maintained sector nurseries who are FSM eligible this has risen from 5% in 2007 to 8% in 2021. A greater percentage of children in reception are FSM eligible (19% in 2021), which is indicative that there are more nursery children that would benefit from FSM than those recorded as FSM eligible. This data sheds light on the reach of a policy which there is little knowledge of in relation this younger age group. In order to be recorded as ‘FSM eligible’ the families have to not only be entitled to FSM by meeting the benefits and income-related criteria, but they also have to apply.

What we still don’t know from this is how many nursery children who are eligible for FSM actually then take up the meals – and perhaps patterns of attendance preclude some children from doing so. (By contrast we do have data on whether meals are taken up for older children in reception to year 2 since the introduction of universal infant free school meals in 2014.) But the bigger question which we are not able to answer is how many nursery children in food poverty are missing from these figures altogether, either due to not meeting the eligibility criteria, not applying, or attending a non-maintained sector nursery which is not required to provide FSM?

Whilst the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of FSM in schools, nursery aged children have been left out of these debates, despite being at greater risk of poverty and in a particularly sensitive period of development. The significance of this early stage of childhood also appears to have been overlooked in the Schools White Paper, which was disappointing in its lack of focus on early years, particularly as the detrimental effects of the pandemic on early child development continue to give cause for concern.

At this critical time when low income families are facing increasing hardship, the role of FSM in nurseries is deserving of more research and attention as a potential tool for addressing food poverty in early years.