In order to address the prevalence of breakfast skipping and poor diet among children, the Welsh Assembly Government committed in 2003 to providing free, healthy breakfasts to primary school children in Wales. DECIPHer was commissioned to evaluate the national rollout of the policy, assessing its effect on diet, breakfast skipping, attitudes towards breakfast, and health inequalities.
The study included 111 schools, with a 12-month follow up assessment of the free breakfast policy’s effectiveness and a nested process evaluation to investigate how it was implemented. The study found that the scheme resulted in children having healthier breakfasts, and more positive attitudes towards breakfast. This may have significant public health implications for dietary behaviours across the life course.
Additionally, the free breakfast initiative was found to be effective in reducing breakfast skipping for the most deprived children. This research also showed that before the free breakfast initiative was introduced, children in more deprived schools ate poorer quality breakfasts than children in more affluent schools. This suggests that the move towards eating healthier breakfasts at school was likely to have had a greater positive effect for these children.
This research hence provides evidence of a universal policy with positive effects on health inequalities – one of very few UK studies to do so.
Evidence from the study has also been used to support the initiative in the face of cross-party disagreement on the issue of free school breakfasts. For example, findings relating to both improved diet and attitudes to breakfast, and health inequalities, were cited by the Welsh Assembly Government in response to criticism of the initiative by Welsh Conservative shadow education minister Paul Davies.
Consequently, financial and political support for the initiative has been maintained by the subsequent coalition government. Speaking on the BBC, Education Minister Leighton Andrews stated “One Wales [the Labour-Plaid Cymru assembly government coalition deal] commits us to maintaining the programme of free school breakfasts and we look forward to even more schools taking up the scheme.” This is reflected in government action – by 2010, 66% of primary schools across Wales had implemented the scheme and on one of the census days that year, 30,174 pupils ate a free school breakfast. To date, the funding of the initiative has risen from £3.5m in 2005-06 to £12.7m in 2013.