How to increase the uptake of Free School Meals

School Meals

Free School Meals have been in the news frequently, Marcus Rashford’s campaigning for funding over the holidays last year raised the profile even further. The uptake of free school meals has been a challenge for schools for many years and nothing seems to have changed, so what can you do?

A 2001 Research Report, Improving the Take-Up of Free School Meals (Storey and Chamberlin) examined how several factors influence the take up of free meals. One of their main findings was that there was a significant stigma attached to being a free school meals child.

“A third of pupils surveyed and over two-fifths of parents identified embarrassment or fear of being teased as a key factor which put people off taking their free meal.”

It was also revealed that 11% of eligible parents simply did not know that their child was entitled to them, and even when they did know, there were concerns about the way that school meals operated, particularly if there was a chance that their child could be marked as different to everyone else.

There were 10 recommendations, and the first 5 were in some way related to the sales and marketing of free school meals.

  1. Schools can improve take up of free provision by providing meals that parents value and pupils want to eat.
  2. In schools with a cafeteria the value of the free meal should keep pace with the purchase price of a healthy meal.
  3. Schools, LEAs and benefit providers need to ensure that parents are aware of their eligibility. Benefit providers could offer parents direct registration of eligibility with the LEA.
  4. Schools should send regular reminders to ensure that, should parents’ circumstances change, they are aware of their eligibility.
  5. Schools need to ‘sell’ the free school meal option to parents especially in schools where only a minority of pupils qualify for free lunch and there is no ‘grapevine’ of information. They should let parents see what is on offer as a free meal and stress the value, nutritionally and financially.

20 years on from this report and the challenges remain.

Perceived Value

The first recommendation is based on the perceived value. What do parents’ value? If you are selling something that few people value, then it will always be a struggle. Increasing the perceived value of the meals will increase uptake.

This could be done in two ways – The first is making the meal just part of the offer stack (here’s what you get for applying and getting free school meals). The reward here has to outweigh the effort required to apply, and it is about more than the food, it is about what else is on offer. This could be funded school trips, discounted swimming, free uniform, breakfast club places, family rewards. This is the offer stack.

The second is by focusing on the price and nutrition of the food.

The first packages free school meals as being part of something bigger, while the second focuses just on the meal. Which is more persuasive? That depends on your audience, but most people respond to getting more for their money.


The second recommendation is all about value or price perception. Free school meals are tarnished by the idea that free = cheap or of poorer quality or of less value (which could be the case in some instances).

Products (in this case school meals) are never truly cheap or expensive, it’s all relative. We assign value to things by comparing them with something else and having an anchor helps us to do that.

Give us a Jobs…

Steve Jobs was renowned for his presentational skills, year after year his ability to sway audiences convinced them to dig deep into their pockets and pay some eye-watering prices for new Apple tech.

During his presentation on the release of the iPad, he asked an apparently innocent question: “What should we price it at?”

He paused, and instead of giving the price, referred to a rumour (a rumour that Apple may well have started)

“If you listen to the pundits, we’re going to price it under a thousand dollars – which is code for $999.”

The number $999 appeared in huge letters behind him on the screen.

He then spoke for a further minute about all the technical aspects of the iPad and the fact that they wanted to make it cheap enough for everyone to get their hands on one.

$999 remained on the screen behind him, fixing itself firmly into everyone’s subconscious.

Then he finished his speech with the words: “I am thrilled to announce to you that the iPad pricing starts not as $999 but at just $499.”

The price on the screen changed to $499 as he spoke. “At $499, a lot of people can afford an iPad.”

The audience was no longer paying $499 for something, they were saving $500.

Our minds fix on any available reference point when it comes to making decisions, by providing this reference point, Steve Jobs and Apple anchored everyone’s expectations to $999.

This principle can be used to help people make better decisions; I’m not commenting on whether purchasing an iPad at $499 is a good decision. In the case of free school meals, it can be used to overcome biases about free school meals not being healthy or being cheap and sub-standard options for their children.

Images of what a free school meal looks like next to the same meal with the full price attached gives them a better understanding of what they are getting and the value. This does however presuppose that the quality of the meal on offer is good and that the value of a free school meal keeps pace with a healthy meal.

There is a lot of hard work required in this area, especially following the posting of meals supplied as free school meals by some providers during the pandemic which were certainly not of good value, healthy or even desirable. A visual anchoring (that must match reality) is one way to start overcoming the damage that has been done.

Raising Awareness

The primary role of marketing is to make people aware of something. The third recommendation in the report makes it abundantly clear that this is not happening, or at least the messages aren’t reaching their target audience. But beyond this, schools need to make it as easy as possible for action to be taken, without a simple mechanism for applying then awareness is not enough to increase uptake.

This messaging needs to be continuous, and not just to those currently eligible. Circumstances change, and families knowing the types of support available shouldn’t be assumed.

Raising awareness, in this case, is also an act of pre-framing, reducing the reluctance of parents to apply for free school meals.

Selling Free School Meals

The report assumes that all that is needed for parents to “buy” free school meals is information with “value”, “nutrition” and “financial benefits” being the USPs of Free School Meals as a product. However, any good salesperson knows there are often lots of objections that need to be overcome when making a sale.

Schools need to recognise that it is part of their pastoral role in the community to overcome these objections. The biggest of these objections is the perceived stigma and status attached to being a Free School Meals child.

They don’t want to be seen as struggling, they don’t necessarily want a “hand-out”, they just don’t want to be seen as less than others. Regardless of the reality, this is their perception of their status and people don’t like to trade down.

Too often a school’s approach is to make an improvement offer. “If you apply for Free School Meals, we can make these things better.” This doesn’t take away the status decrease, in fact it may make it worse.

Flipping the narrative to cast them as heroes who can help the school changes the status of action. It is no longer about what you can do for them, but about what they can do for you.

Howden Junior School changed the narrative in a letter to their parents. They started the letter with a question.

“Did you know that you may be able to help learning for our children?”

While initially, the increase in FSM children was only 1 child, the increase in applications showed that they have taken a step closer to increasing the status of the people that apply and over time the number of families successfully claiming has increased.

Another approach, by Chris Dyson at Parklands, is to offer an incentive for action. He created an offer stack (not just the food)

“You should be aware that the FSM entitlement also brings additional funding to the school in the form of Pupil Premium – it is this funding which allows the school to provide many of the extras that Parklands offers your child: no charges for any school trips (all residentials are free), PE kits, small group interventions, Speech and Language resource, plus much more.”

He then makes taking action easy by providing the relevant phone numbers or places where you can apply.

Finally, he offers a further incentive for action. A £25 Tesco voucher and the chance to win £250. The result. 7 new applications in the 2 days following the letter.

This is a complex issue, and mindsets around Free School Meals do need to be changed, the best way to get a higher response is to build trust with your community.

(This article is an excerpt from my as yet unpublished book: Tribal Schools: Building Communities)

You can download a word copy of Chris Dyson’s letter by clicking here