Universal free school meals: the future of school meal programmes?

Policies & Strategies
p. 831-833
Periodical title
The Lancet, 402 (2023), 10405

Overall, evidence suggests that universal free school meals (UFSM) can be a cost-effective policy that benefits all students, while also promoting health and academic equity. Thus, UFSM policies can be justified on the basis of the benefits to health, education, and human capital, but even more so if other returns on investments are considered, including multisectoral impacts in the social protection, gender-equity, and local agricultural and food systems domains. The arguments against UFSM are typically related to costs and parental responsibility; these are similar to the arguments used in the 19th century in the UK and the USA against providing free, compulsory universal education, which has become the standard for child development in all countries. Thus, if universal free education makes sense for growing children, children’s wellbeing must also be considered. The provision of universal free education and UFSM together can help ensure that the benefits of both measures are leveraged. More than a third of the world’s school meals are provided through UFSM policies, which benefited 186 million children of the 418 million children who received school meals in 2022. Political and community support for UFSM needs to be harnessed to build the growing UFSM movement and expand school meal coverage worldwide.

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