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Low uptake of free school meals

Professor Pinki Sahota

Professor Pinki Sahota has a strong track record and profile in tackling nutrition and childhood obesity, building on her NHS professional background as a Registered Public Health Nutritionist and Registered Dietician with nearly 20 years of experience as a community dietician.

In her current role, Pinki teaches across all levels on undergraduate and postgraduate Dietetics and Public Human Nutrition courses. She has expertise in research methods and skills and public health approaches in nutrition and obesity and she teaches across a range of modules. She is also responsible for the co-ordination of all final year individual student dissertations and regularly acts as external examiner of PhDs. Pinki is actively engaged in research activities within our University’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing.

In April 2013, Public Health Nutrition Journal published a study, led by Pinki, which sought to discover why half a million families in the UK are not consuming the free school meals that they are entitled to. Pinki found that quality and size portions, rather than stigma, are the main reasons that pupils are not taking up their free school meals.

The research, which is the first phase of a larger project, took place in four primary schools and four secondary schools in Leeds and involved interviews with head teachers, school administrators, caterers, parents and pupils themselves.

Pinki found that, although the concern of stigma related to being identified as claiming free school meals was cited by some, the main reasons for not taking their free meals were: quality; portion sizes; and the dining experience not being appealing. Furthermore, schools are not actively encouraging free school meal uptake and some do not understand the application process themselves.

Pinki commented: "The current economic downturn has heightened concern for the wellbeing of children from financially disadvantaged families. As a result, school food has assumed an elevated position. We wanted to find out why half a million eligible children are not eating a free school meal. Our findings show that the best way of improving the uptake of free school meals is to aim to increase the uptake of all (paid and free) school meals as the factors limiting this, including quality and dining environment, apply to all children."

The paper, produced by Professor Sahota with Leeds Beckett  Research Fellow, Jenny Woodward, Rosemary Molinari and Dr Jo Pike of the University of Leeds, suggests that schools need to develop individualised proactive approaches to promoting free school meals.

The team used these findings to develop a range of interventions which they have now tested in ten schools as part of the second phase of this study. A paper is currently being written around the findings.