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Free School Meals, Diet Quality and Food Insecurity in Secondary School Pupils: a Mixed Methods Study.

In the CANTEEN study a team of researchers are working together to find out more about school meals and free school meals (FSM) in secondary schools. The research is led by Professor Jayne Woodside from Queen’s University Belfast, in collaboration with our team from the University of Birmingham, and is funded by the National Institute for Health Research.

View the CANTEEN study - main website

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University of Birmingham Research team leads

Professor Miranda Pallan

Miranda PallanInstitute of Applied Health Research

Professor of Child and Adolescent Public Health 

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Dr Marie Murphy 

Marie Murphy UoB 1Institute of Applied Health Research

Research Fellow

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Meet the team

Queen’s Belfast University site:

PI(s):  Professor Jayne Woodside

Postdocs: Dr Sarah Moore, Dr Lesley Hamill, Dr Desiree Schliemann (on maternity leave)

Research staff: Christina O’Neill

University of Birmingham site:

PI(s):  Professor Miranda Pallan and Dr Marie Murphy

Postdocs: Dr Emma Alving-Jessep

Research staff: Estera Sevel

Administrative staff: Katie Youngwood

Aims of the project

We aim to look at how differences in free school meal (FSM) uptake in schools relates to the food children eat, the quality of this food, and their food insecurity.  We will also investigate how expensive different levels of FSM uptake would be.  We will then examine whether schools with higher FSM uptake have different ways of offering FSM compared to lower FSM uptake schools, and whether this understanding can be used to support schools to change FSM provision. Finally, we will explore whether changing who qualifies for FSM would impact on the food eaten and food insecurity.

Why is this research needed?

  • We all want children to eat well – it’s essential to their concentration, ability to learn and well-being.  
  • Not having enough money to buy food is known as food insecurity and is common in UK children - 19% of UK children aged under 15 years live in moderate-severely food insecure households, and food insecurity is consistently linked with poor health outcomes.
  • In the most food insecure children, access to sufficient food is a major concern, with FSMs being a main nutrition source.
  • Although all schools offer FSM based on household income, about 1 in 5 pupils do not take up their meal. 
  • Little research has examined the impact of the current FSM policy on food intake, diet quality and food insecurity, particularly in secondary schools.
  • Evidence of effectiveness of the current FSM policy is essential to support the status quo as well as inform proposed changes at national and regional levels.

What is involved?

When is the CANTEEN study taking place?

The research is split into 2 parts.  The first part (an observational study) will take place between September 2023 and June 2024.  The second part (a case study) will take place between September 2024 and January 2025, by invitation.  Not all schools who take part in the observational study will need to take part in the case study. 

Who can take part in the CANTEEN study?

Researchers are going to identify the schools which can take part (based on how many of their pupils are entitled to FSM - 20% or more) and invite them to do so via a letter to the head teacher.  There will be a total of 32 schools taking part - 16 schools in Northern Ireland and 16 schools in England. 

What will happen if a school decides to take part in the observational study?

If a school agrees to take part, the observational study will involve several different elements, including interviews and questionnaires with school pupils, parents, and school and catering staff and observation of the school eating environment.  The research team will visit the school on at least 2 occasions to complete these measures.  We are going to work with year 7 and year 10 pupils in England and year 8 and year 11 pupils in Northern Ireland.  All schools who agree to take part in the study will be given £500 for their involvement and schools will receive more money for every parent questionnaire completed (£5 per questionnaire).  A further £500 will be given to case study schools.  

Where can I find more information about the CANTEEN study?

You can find out more about the CANTEEN study in our study protocol and various study information sheets. There is more information there about what happens to the data we collect, how we store and protect it. 

Public representatives

We have two public advisory groups guiding our research:

  • Youth Advisory Group.
  • Adults (Parents and School Staff) Advisory Group. 

These groups will meet up to 8 times over an online platform (Microsoft Teams or Zoom) over the 2-year study (between March 2023 and December 2025).

Our public representatives are reimbursed for their time.

If you are interested in being involved as a public representative, please get in touch at


  • Study Management Group (SMG) is a group of co-investigators from University of Leeds, University of York, Newcastle University, University of Glasgow, University of Essex, University of Birmingham and Larne High School, Belfast.
  • Study Steering Committee (SSC).  The members of this committee are ranging in expertise and include independent researchers and at least one public member.   The role of the SSC is to provide overall supervision for the study on behalf of the study's Sponsor (Queen’s University Belfast) and Funder (NIHR) and to ensure that it is conducted to the rigorous standards set out in the UK Policy Framework for Health and Social Care and the Guidelines for Good Clinical Practice.  The SSC meet at least once per year. 

Recent publications

Murphy M, Pallan M, Lancashire E, Duff R, Adamson AJ, Bartington S, Frew E, Griffin T, Hurley KL, Parry J, Passmore S, Ravaghi V, Sitch AJ, Spence S, Rowland MK, Wheeldon S, Adab P. The Food provision, cUlture and Environment in secondary schooLs (FUEL) study: protocol of a mixed methods evaluation of national School Food Standards implementation in secondary schools and their impact on pupils' dietary intake and dental health. BMJ Open. 2020 Oct 16;10(10):e042931. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-042931. PMID: 33067305; PMCID: PMC7569925.


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