Dropping universal free school meals plan would be a false economy

The Labour Party is under pressure to commit to universal free school meals for primary school children. This blog by Lee Crawfurd explores the international literature on universal free school meal programs, finding that they are cost-effective and have long-lasting benefits.

The Labour Party is under pressure to commit to universal free school meals for primary school children, being embarrassed by devolved administrations in London, Scotland, and Wales who are already doing it.

This brings up the age-old question of universalism versus targeting in social policy. Universalism is obviously more expensive, but targeting is costly, doesn’t actually always work well in reaching the poorest, and can risk creating stigma. Fortunately, in the case of school meals, we can go beyond theoretical debates and draw on evidence both here and abroad to understand the impact of free school meals for all. 

First, do universal school meal programs promote better learning? In England, the Government ran a pilot scheme offering universal free school meals in two local authorities – Durham and Newham – back in 2009, leading to “a significant positive impact on attainment for primary school pupils”. Though expensive, the scheme was cost effective – “the universal entitlement pilot appeared to deliver better value for money for pupils, on average, than highly targeted educational interventions such as Every Child a Reader.” More recently, an evaluation of universal provision in early grades in England shows a reduction in obesity.

Other countries have had similarly positive experiences. In the United States, universal free school meal programmes are spreading across states – six recently began implementing state-wide programs (California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont), and 20 states have considered bills this year to make free meals permanent. Economist Krista Ruffini looked at a federal US program allowing schools in selected states to apply for funding to cover universal meals. She found small average improvements in attainment in districts with the lowest prior eligibility. Another study found the same program improved behaviour and reduced suspensions. Other researchers have used more fine-grained longitudinal data tracking individual kids to look at outcomes before and after they moved in or out of schools with universal free meals, or before and after their school switched in or out of the scheme. The overall effect was an increase in both Maths and English test scores, for both poor and non-poor students.

In South Korea, economist Yoonjung Kim again found positive effects on learning from the phased roll-out of universal meals across provinces. Other researchers found a reduction in behavioural incidents, including fights between students, and improvements in mental health, including less “crying without any reason.”

How will we pay for all this? Universal provision in Sweden increased lifetime earnings by 3% – more than enough for the program to pay for itself in higher tax receipts. It is also important to remember that universal free school meals carry only a fiscal cost and not an economic cost. If the state bears the cost of feeding children, that usually means that parents can reduce their own spending (as has been the experience in the US). Lower grocery spending by parents can then have knock-on effects. One American study found that expansion of free school lunches reduced supermarket sales by 10%, forcing supermarkets to lower their prices for everyone – on average, it was estimated that the average household saved 4.5% on grocery bills. Alternatively, if universal free school meals does not bring meaningful cost savings for families, it likely means children weren’t eating enough to begin with and the additional spending therefore is a high return investment in their nutrition and human capital.

Aren’t there better ways to spend scarce public money on education? Probably. However school meals have the distinct advantage of being relatively easy to deliver. Just look at the challenges of delivering the National Tutoring Scheme. A good scheme in theory, it was riddled with procurement challenges getting started, and 1 in 3 schools still aren’t using it at all, as the budget remains underspent by hundreds of millions of pounds. Public money is always scarce, but if you can’t spend the budget you have you’re unlikely to get any more. By contrast, when you can clearly show an actionable shovel-ready plan, new funding can often be found. School meals are hard to get wrong. There might be better value for money interventions to improve learning, but many of them are hard to get right.

There’s one other angle worth considering. While universal free school meal programs continue to expand in the UK and the United States, they are also growing slowly in the poorest countries where they are most needed and least available. A new international School Meals Coalition is being led by France and Finland to help poor countries expand access to programs. The UK used to be a leader in global development, and we’re now being upstaged by France. We can hardly join the cry if we don’t get our own house in order first. Mostly due to our universities, many governments still look to the UK as an example for how to run an education system. We could be setting them a much better example.


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