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Think tank calls for expansion of free school meals, healthy food voucher scheme and end to environmentally harmful foods

A new IPPR report calls for bold but common-sense reforms to change the way the UK runs its food system to ensure everyone is able to access healthy food, produced in ways that support the environment and nature, while providing sustainable livelihoods for food industry workers.

As part of a reform plan for the whole food sector, the think tank calls for an expansion of the provision of free school meals and the introduction of healthy food vouchers, and a ban on food linked to deforestation by 2030. In order to dramatically reduce the environmental impact of the food industry, IPPR says sustainably produced food should represent a majority of the calories consumed by people in the UK by 2030.

Tackling the climate and nature emergencies requires bold changes to the whole food sector, including reforms to the way food is grown, harvested, transported, processed and packaged, but the costs of this must not fall on those least able to pay.

The think tank argues that food sector reform must instead ensure sustainable, affordable, healthy and nutritious food is more accessible to those on low incomes. In the drive to net zero, the government must not increase the UK’s already stark economic and health inequalities, according to IPPR.

IPPR proposes the following measures to ensure every family gets a nutritious and environmentally friendly meal:

  • Expanding free school meals – Providing every child who lives in a household in receipt of universal credit with a free school meal, supporting every child to meet their dietary requirements. This will cost an estimated £275 million but will have health and economic benefits.
  • Healthy child voucher scheme – Recognising the higher costs of healthier and more sustainable food, each family in receipt of universal credit should also get a £21 per week healthy food voucher per child. These should be redeemable for any foods that do not contain excessive levels of sugar, fat or salt. This would cost an estimated maximum of £1.5 billion per year.
  • Food security – Introducing a target to end household food insecurity and child food poverty in the UK by 2030. In addition to the above measures, the UK needs to address the underlying causes of poverty and raise incomes. A stronger, fairer economy, combined with a more generous social security system, will be vital.
  • UK Food Act - Enshrining the ‘right to food’ in law and creating a UK Food Commission to monitor progress, advise on policy, and hold UK governments to account on their delivery of sustainable and fair food practices.

IPPR argues these measures should help address food inequalities, while the UK takes the necessary steps to limit environmental damage caused by the food sector. Beyond the farm gates, IPPR also proposes a suite of other policies to help prioritise healthy and sustainable food products in the UK, including:

  • Eliminating all food imports linked to deforestation by 2030.
  • Developing fair and sustainable food supply chains by fast-tracking the implementation of new environmentally friendly codes of compliance and forcing large food companies and supermarkets to report on their supply chain environmental impact.
  • Using public procurement throughout the food sector to encourage sustainable practices, including establishing new sustainability and quality standards on food in public institutions, such as schools, hospitals and prisons.
  • Legally commit not to reduce or dilute UK food standards through trade policy and trade negotiations.
  • Boost high streets by investing in local food markets, processing facilities and food hubs to get locally sourced sustainable food to local people and ensure nowhere is without access to environmentally friendly and healthy food options.

IPPR will set out detailed reforms for the UK’s agriculture industry in a report set to be published next month.

Luke Murphy, head of the IPPR Environmental Justice Commission, said:

“A healthy meal shouldn’t cost the earth, it should help save it. Ensuring everyone has access to a healthy and environmentally friendly meal should be the goal of any policy action to improve the way food is produced and consumed.”

Dr Marcus Nyman, a senior research fellow at IPPR and a senior policy officer at RSPB, said:

“Currently, too many adults and children are going without a healthy meal, with rates of child food poverty alarmingly on the rise. For too many people the healthy choice, isn’t the easy choice. This needs to change.

“As the government considers what reforms need to be made to the food sector to reduce its environmental impact, they must take steps in parallel to increase access to healthy food, particularly for those most in need. Expanding free school meals and introducing healthy food vouchers would make a major contribution to this effort.”

Dr Paul Coleman, associate fellow at the IPPR and public health registrar at the University of Warwick, said:

“Developing a healthy and sustainable food system requires a radical change in how we think about food. For too long, different parts of the food system have been considered in isolation, when in reality all dimensions, from the impacts of unsustainable farming practices on nature to childhood hunger, interact with each other.

“Instead, we need to take a ‘whole food systems approach’, which considers how all dimensions of the food system interact and influence one another.”



  1. The IPPR paper, Building a food system that works for everyone by Paul Coleman, Marcus Nyman, Luke Murphy and Oyinlola Oyebode. It will be available for download at:
  2. Advance copies of the report are available under embargo on request
  3. The cross-party IPPR Environmental Justice Commission was created in 2019 with the aim of working with people across the UK to develop policies and ideas that will tackle the climate crisis and restore nature as quickly and fairly as possible. The commission is co-chaired by Hilary Benn MP, Laura Sandys and Caroline Lucas MP, leading politicians from the Labour, Conservative and Green Parties. Find out more here:
  4. It is estimated that 4.9 million people in the UK, including 1.7 million children (12 per cent of all children), experienced food insecurity in May 2020 – a 250 per cent increase over pre-Covid-19 levels (Food Foundation 2020).
  5. The food system, and agriculture specifically, is the single largest cause of biodiversity decline and species loss over past decades in the UK. According to the State of Nature Report (Hayhow 2019), 41 per cent of species have seen declines since 1970, with 15 per cent of UK species now threatened with extinction.
  6. IPPR is the UK’s pre-eminent progressive think tank. With more than 40 staff in offices in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh, IPPR is Britain’s only national think tank with a truly national presence.