Are free school meals failing families? Exploring the relationship between child food insecurity, child mental health and free school meal status during COVID-19: national cross-sectional surveys

Tiffany Yang*, Madeleine Power, Rachel Moss, Bridget Lockyer, Wendy Burton, Bob Doherty, Maria Bryant

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective Food insecurity is linked to poor health and well-being in children and rising prevalence rates have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Free school meals (FSM) are considered a critical tool for reducing the adverse effects of poverty but apply a highly restrictive eligibility criteria. This study examined levels of food security and FSM status to support decision-making regarding increasing the current eligibility criteria.

Design Two cross-sectional national surveys administered in August–September 2020 and January–February 2021 were used to examine the impact of COVID-19 on the food experiences of children and young people.

Setting UK.

Participants 2166 children (aged 7–17 years) and parents/guardians.

Main outcome measures Participant characteristics were described by food security and FSM status; estimated marginal means were calculated to obtain the probability of poor mental health, expressed as children reporting feeling stressed or worried in the past month, by food security status and FSM status.

Results We observed food insecurity among both children who did and did not receive of FSM: 23% of children not receiving FSM were food insecure. Children who were food insecure had a higher probability of poor mental health (31%, 95% CI: 23%, 40%) than children who were food secure (10%, 95% CI: 7%, 14%). Food insecure children receiving FSM had a higher probability of poor mental health (51%, 95% CI: 37%, 65%) than those who were food insecure and not receiving FSM (29%, 95% CI: 19%, 42%).

Conclusion Many children experienced food insecurity regardless of whether they received FSM, suggesting the eligibility criteria needs to be widened to prevent overlooking those in need.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere059047
Number of pages11
JournalBMJ Open
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

© Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2022.


  • Food insecurity
  • free school meals
  • child poverty

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