Parents forced to cut back on hot school lunches and choose cheaper, less nutritious packed lunches.

Food and children’s charities are calling on the Government to prioritise school food in the Autumn budget and urgently expand eligibility for free school meals after new research (released 14.11.23) found that a third of families can no  longer afford hot school lunches. The polling of parents across England, carried out by Survation for the school food charity, Chefs in Schools, also found that 41% of parents were providing less nutritious packed lunches for children because of rising food prices. 

The research also reveals:

  • 56% of parents are struggling to make ends meet.
  • 58% feel the current Free School Meals system, where eligibility varies depending on location and age, is unfair.
  • 83% of parents wanted eligibility expanded.
  • 62% said they would be more likely to vote for a party which promised to expand free school meals.

Parents shared stories of shame at no longer being able to afford a hot school lunch for their child because of the cost of living crisis:

“It makes me feel like a failure, I feel it makes my child less focused.”

“School meals are too expensive now. We are both working parents and still can’t afford to pay for school dinners. Free school meals should be for all. We are worse off working.”

“My husband has a great job, I have a good job which allows for overtime but with 4 kids I struggle as it is, I currently have no money to buy food or pay for school meals, I’m in big debt because everything has become too unaffordable.”

“It makes me feel terrible and guilt ridden as she’s no longer able to sit with friends that do have school meals.“ 

“I’m upset that my child has to take packed lunches when he likes to eat the hot meals at school.” 

The School Food Review working group, a coalition of school leaders, local authorities, catering experts and campaigners, say the findings highlight the urgent need for the Government to extend eligibility for free school meals to ensure no child goes hungry in school.  

England’s school meal eligibility threshold is currently the most restrictive of all the devolved nations – only families who earn below £7,400, excluding benefits, are entitled to free school meals – whereas in Scotland and Wales, free school meals are being introduced for all children of primary school age, while Northern Ireland’s eligibility threshold is almost twice that of England’s at £14,000. 

In London, all primary school children are now entitled to free school meals following a policy change from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, but children in London’s secondary schools miss out.

Existing research has shown that almost a million children living  in poverty are not entitled to a free meal in school.* With parents now increasingly unable to afford nutritious lunches, campaigners are calling for the Government to act with haste.

Naomi Duncan, Chief Executive of Chefs in Schools, said: “The Chancellor must take action this autumn statement to ensure no child goes hungry at school. We now have growing inequality, where age or location determines whether a child is fed in school. It’s unjustifiable. 

“Eating a meal in school goes beyond immediate hunger, providing powerful fuel for learning too. Yet, parents are struggling to afford hot school meals or nutritious packed lunches. There would be no better investment this Government could make in the future, than ensuring access to decent, hot, nutritious, meals in our schools.”

The need for urgent action in the forthcoming budget is backed up by analysis and research showing that children have better outcomes if they can access a school meal, with that investment also returning significant economic benefit for the country. For every £1 invested in school food, £1.71 is returned.**

In London, where eligibility for free school meals has been extended to all children of primary school age, teachers are seeing the benefits. 

Woodmansterne School in Lambeth, south London, has 1,600 pupils spanning nursery-age children to sixth formers.

The headteacher, Samantha Palin, says the policy change has delivered immediate benefits for the health and wellbeing of younger children.

Ms Palin said:  “It’s given us an opportunity to encourage good eating habits and build an understanding among the children about how eating that nutritious food makes them feel good for the rest of the day.

Ms Palin says it would be a phenomenal move to extend access to ensure secondary school pupils benefited too.

“The long-term benefits for the NHS and long-term eating habits of feeding children nutritional food until the age of 18 would be incredibly significant,” Ms Palin said.

Woodmansterne has invested in its food, making all meals from scratch and hiring a kitchen team who talk to the children about food. Ms Palin firmly believes access to school food has wide-ranging benefits for children. “Our last two years of (attainment) data at primary level have been significantly above the national average. That’s never down to just one thing but it’s in part due to the food.”

The coalition of campaigners, including Chefs in Schools, Biteback 2030, the Food Foundation, Sustain, Impact on Urban Health, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and School Food Matters, say politicians must now prioritise school food and take urgent action to extend eligibility without delay.


Read the research in full here, and to support calls to extend eligibility, write to the Secretary of State click here. 



For media queries and interviews, contact: or

Available for interview:  Naomi Duncan, Chief Executive of Chefs in Schools.

Head teacher of a secondary school where families struggle to afford lunches.

Other case study quotes available.


Notes for Editors:

Survation Research:

Methodology: online interviews of parents across the income distribution in England with a school-aged child 

Fieldwork: 8th – 26th 2023

Sample size: 1,036




**The value of a school lunch cannot be understated. In 2022 Impact on Urban Health commissioned PWC to conduct a cost benefit analysis – the most comprehensive conducted to date. Analysis showed that, by extending Free School meals to all children, the benefit over 2025-2045 adds up to £41.3bn, for every £1 invested, £1.71 is returned.

About the School Food Review Group

The School Food Review Working Group is a coalition of 36 organisations spanning charities, educational organisations, catering companies, unions and academics, committed to working together to improve children’s health by reforming the school food system. Visit:


About Chefs in Schools

Chefs in Schools was established in June 2018 with the aim of transforming child health through better school food and food education.

The charity works hands-on in schools in London, the South West and Yorkshire – reaching tens of thousands of children each day. It targets areas with high levels of socio-economic deprivation, aiming to reduce food poverty, child obesity and malnutrition through improving school food. 

The charity has a proven model where a team of skilled professional chefs are sent in to train school kitchen teams to make all school lunches from scratch. 

Packet mixes, ultra processed and pre-prepared frozen food are off the menu, replaced by freshly made sauces, street food, vegetable packed pasta dishes, curries, school-made fish fingers, plus freshly baked breads stuffed with herbs and cheeses.

Chefs in Schools has shown it’s possible to make exciting, creative school meals for as little as 80p in primary schools and 90p in secondary schools.

Chefs in Schools is a campaigning charity – lobbying to end food poverty, to improve free school meals and for nationwide improvement of school meal standards.

Founded by Henry Dimbleby, Nicole Pisani and Lousie Nichols, the charity is now backed by some of the country’s leading food influencers, including Prue Leith, Thomasina Miers and Yotam Ottolenghi.