The Universal Infant Free School Meal (UIFSM) policy was introduced in September 2014 in England and January 2015 in Scotland and offered all infant schoolchildren (ages 4-7 years) a free school lunch, regardless of income. Yet, impacts of UIFSM on dietary intakes or social inequalities are not known. A difference-in-differences study using the National Diet and Nutrition Survey assessed pooled pre-UIFSM (2010-2014) and post-UIFSM (2014-2017) dietary data. English or Scottish infant schoolchildren (4-7 years; n = 458) were the intervention group, with junior schoolchildren (8-11 years; n = 401) as controls. We found that implementation of UIFSM led to an increase in infant schoolchildren having a school meal. Impacts on key food groups such as fruit and vegetables or sweetened beverages were not seen. However, there was evidence that the UIFSM policy lowered consumption of foods associated with packed lunches, such as crisps, and some nutrients, such as total fat and sodium. Policy impacts differed by income group, with larger effect sizes in low-income children. In conclusion, evaluation of UIFSM demonstrated some improvements in dietary quality but the findings suggest school meal quality needs to be improved to fully realise the benefits of UIFSM.
Keywords: children; nutrition; policy evaluation; school lunch; universal free school meals.