Southwark Council: Universal primary Free School Meals

Southwark is one of only five English councils to fund a universal Free School Meal (FSM) offer for all of its primary schools. The Council’s Free Healthy School Meals (FHSM) programme has been a universal offer and council commitment since September 2013 for all primary school students in Key Stage 2, supplementing the central government funded, means-tested Free School Meals and Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM).

The challenge

Southwark is a borough with high levels of deprivation, including among children, with 38% of the borough’s children living in poverty. The current household income threshold for government-funded free school meals of £7,400, excludes many children in the borough whose families are struggling financially. In Southwark, approximately 1 in 4 children in reception are overweight or obese (24%). By Year 6, this increases to more than 1 in 3 children (42%).

The solution

Implementing a programme of Free Healthy School Meals (FHSM) for all primary aged pupils attending Southwark schools was a key council commitment, as set out in the June 2010 cabinet paper ‘A Fairer Future for all in Southwark’.

As one of a suite of interventions, the Council took the decision to introduce FHSM as part of its commitment to tackle the high levels of obesity in children, as well as tackling poverty and inequality. We know that school provides an ideal setting to encourage young people to eat well and learn to cook. This not only helps protect their health, but also sets the foundations for improved behaviour and success with their studies.

The impact

Universal primary school lunch in Southwark supports residents in the following ways:

  • contributes to family food security 
  • improves pupil’s concentration and behaviour in class
  • increases the amount of fruit and vegetables, and reduces the amount of sugar and salt, consumed by pupils at lunchtime
  • encourages children to try new foods
  • provides a hot meal each day.

The impact of universal primary free school meal provision in Southwark, alongside three other boroughs with universal provision; Tower Hamlets, Newham and Islington, has been studied by researchers at the University of Essex. The study found that universal primary free school meal schemes reduce the prevalence of obesity among children and help households with the cost of living. There was a cumulative effect over time of providing free meals; suggesting that starting free meal provision early and maintaining it throughout primary school maximises the impact on cutting obesity rates. Key statistics include: 

  • receiving universal free school meals reduces prevalence of obesity by 9.3% among reception children and 5.6% among year 6 children on average. This corresponds to a 1.3 and 1.4 percentage point reduction in obesity
  • effects are largest among year 6 children who received free provision the longest
  • families with two adults and two primary-aged children save approximately £37 per month in total on food spending.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Southwark has had a universal primary free school meals offer for almost a decade, and are continuing to look at ways in which the offer can be improved and expanded.

Cost of Free Healthy School Meals

Southwark Council increased the price paid to primary schools per FHSM (per pupil) to £2.41 from £1.90, from September 2022-23 to bring parity with the government funded UIFSM funding. The increase was introduced to ensure schools to pay catering staff the London living wage and support with rising costs.

School Meals Transformation Programme

Alongside universal primary Free School Meals (FSM), Southwark has launched the School Meals System Transformation Programme to strengthen our school food system. The programme is led by Southwark Council in partnership with Impact on Urban Health (part of Guy's and St. Thomas' Charity), who are providing additional expert support as well as matched funding to the value of £525,000 over the four years of the programme. In total, approximately £1.2M will be invested to transform school meals in Southwark. Like many other parts of the country, Southwark’s local market for school food is fragmented and complex. The aim of the programme is to establish a more stable system that gives schools value for money; better control of their catering contracts; and supports Southwark’s environmental sustainability and climate emergency agenda. The programme will be achieved through four drivers of change:

  1. Targeted support and training for school business professionals
  2. Improving co-ordination by moving towards a centrally commissioned school food offer
  3. Putting into place effective governance and accountability mechanisms
  4. Supporting schools to share what works well.


Southwark has been actively campaigning to promote the benefits of universal school meal provision, asking the Government to make free school meals universally available to all primary aged children nationally, and to increase the FSM eligibility threshold to £20,000 for secondary aged pupils. This would support families with secondary school age children and teenagers; targeting the most vulnerable pupils just above the current eligibility threshold who are struggling to make ends meet and feed their families. The Council are also supportive of automatic enrolment for means tested free school meals, to ensure that all entitled children are claiming them and that schools receive associated Pupil Premium funding.

Lessons learned

Southwark Council recognises the incredible benefits of providing a healthy lunchtime meal for all primary school children, and are proud of this policy, which has improved both learning and wellbeing and removed the stigma of free school meals. Particularly in light of the cost of living crisis, the practical support for families dealing with stretched budgets of having healthy lunches provided for their children at school cannot be understated.


Gillian Boundy, Policy Officer for School Food: [email protected]