Researching school meals with the pupils who eat them.
The Free School Meals project with North Lanarkshire Council has an overarching challenge: how do we ensure that the children who need free school meals actually get them?
The problem is a big one, but it’s one worth tackling. Not eating lunch impacts on attendance, behaviour, and attainment, so increasing the number of children who take free school meals will help them thrive.
I grew up in North Lanarkshire and this project is a nice way for me to return to home. During the research I’ve had connections to teachers; they’ve taught the people that grew up around me — they know friends and family. It’s been strange to revisit these places, and unexpectedly reminiscent. I remember the small details that are still a part of school lunches today: everyone still loves chicken curry – however, the trays seem a lot smaller than when I was little.
To understand children’s experiences around school meals, we designed and conducted lessons with P1 to P7 pupils. The lessons produced outputs that encourage young people to speak about school meals and the routines surrounding these.
Drawing a menu
P1 to P2 pupils drew their school meals from the previous week. The activity helped foster a conversation around the menu. We will use their artwork to design a new look for the school meal menus, giving pupils ownership by allowing them to contribute to the design.
Pupils made it very clear they do not like crusts (nothing new there) and that they tend to stick with what they know. When given the choice of a burger (familiar) or an enchilada (a mystery), they chose the former. Fish and chips is still as popular as it was when I was a kid!
However, making a ‘safe’ choice isn’t just about familiarity – it’s about reducing risk. If you don’t like what you’ve chosen (and you subsequently don’t eat it), you then won’t eat again till dinner time. That’s a long time to go without food.
Writing to people in power
P3 to P5 pupils wrote letters to “people in power”about their experiences of school meals, and what they would like to see in the future. School meals are for kids, and it was important they felt involved in the research.
Their letters highlight that it’s not just what they eat – it’s also about how they eat it, including factors such as company and location. School halls are loud, I remember that much, and some of the children and staff echoed this.“It’s not a nice place to eat” said one teacher, with some pupils saying that they would like somewhere quieter to eat, where their “ears wouldn’t hurt” and they could sit and chat with their friends.
Memes on the menu
Everybody loves a meme, especially schoolkids, so P5 to P7 pupils created these to help the new P1s and their carers understand the school rituals around breakfast and lunch. This activity gave pupils the opportunity to show how routines differ across schools. Might some of the differences explain differences in school meals uptake?
Furthermore, some of the memes showed that kids felt connected to larger issues surrounding ethics and food. As one child put it: “you shouldn’t waste food because others might not have enough”.
An experiment around fruit
Finally, we brought along a selection of fruit to the lessons to test whether what we had heard about young people not wanting to eat fruit was accurate.
The pupils emptied the bowls and enjoyed trying new fruits — many had never had kiwi or plum before. They encouraged each other to taste the fruits, and eagerly discussed their favourites.
Children said they were usually happy to eat fruit as a snack, but not with meals. If you present a child with a piece of fruit and a piece of cake — cake wins!
We are combining the findings from the pupils, staff, and stakeholder research with data analysis and service mapping to design a series of interventions that help tackle the barriers we identify to free school meals.
Watch this space, we’ll share the progress of our mission to make Free School Meals as desirable and accessible as possible.
Want to get involved?
We designed and conducted three different, age-appropriate activities. If you would like to try these with your pupils or youth group, you can see and download lessons plans and tools here. We would love to hear about what you find — get in touch with email@example.com.