Free School Meals through a local lens – Bradford

Alex Dalton and Tom Albone are part of our Data Scientist Internship Programme – and the Nutrition and Lifestyle Analytics team – their work focusses on the power of Data for Public Good. The shared focus of their intern projects is inequalities in the local Bradford area, and one of the pressing local issues affecting this local community (as well as families nationally) is free school meals.

Following on from their previous blog ‘Free School Meals: A National Necessity’, in which they demonstrated the regional inequalities within England concerning eligibility and uptake of free school meals, with the data indicating that the Northern regions have the greatest eligibility for the service, this article considers the issue locally, focussing on the Bradford district. 

Free School Meals through a local lens – Bradford  

For many, January 2021 has not started as we had hoped. Although there is widespread positivity brought by the Coronavirus vaccination roll-out, at the time of writing, a third lockdown once again means that homes have to simultaneously encompass the office and the classroom as schools are closed to all but vulnerable children and the children of key workers. The Government has agreed to extend free school meals during this third lockdown. In this second blog article we have taken the opportunity to reflect on the free school meals issue, in a more local context. 

Food insecurity and child poverty are worse in economically deprived areas. Bradford (see Figure 1) is the 6th largest city in the UK, yet it routinely reports high levels of deprivation. It is ranked the 13th most deprived local authority in England (out of 317) and the 2nd in Yorkshire and the Humber region. Between 2015 and 2019 Bradford moved up six places from 19th to 13th in the overall list, indicating its worsening situation.¹ 

The recent Born in Bradford Better Start (BiBBS) Covid-19 Survey across families in Bradford found that 18% of children said they do ‘worry about how hard it is for parents to get enough food for us’ – a shocking statistic.  

Plot showing the percentage of students eligible for free school meals per school on census day in the 2019/20 Academic Year

Figure 1. Plot showing the percentage of students eligible for free school meals per school on census day in the 2019/20 Academic Year. Plots are by Local Authority, indicating the quartiles with bw=0.1 and a uniform scale across the plots. Percentages are calculated per school using data collected by the ONS across all schools in the UK (excluding independent schools). The plot of students eligible on census day is overlayed with the plot of students recorded actually taking free school meals on the census day (translucent violin plots).

Within Yorkshire and the Humber, a breakdown of students’ eligibility by Local Authority allows a comparative understanding of the Bradford area. Our analysis uses government data across all schools, excluding independent schools, for the 2019/20 Academic Year, see Figure 1.  

Comparing the shapes of the violin plots, it is clear that the number of students eligible per school ranges drastically between local authorities, as it does nationwide. The shorter plots (such as North Yorkshire) indicate that the schools in that area all have a similarly low eligibility. In contrast, taller plots (such as Sheffield) indicate that there is a high number of schools in the area with a high percentage of eligible students.  

Bradford schools reported a similar mean eligibility across its schools (20.5%) to the statistics for the Yorkshire and the Humber Region (19.5%). The importance of free school meals in the area jumps out when looking at quartiles: a widely-used statistical measure marking out points in the distributions shown on the plots by dashed lines. 

Looking at the distance between the lower and upper dashed lines for each Local Authority, Bradford can be seen to have a large range of eligibility in its schools. Each dashed line (quartile) progressively marks a quarter of the data, when ranked from lowest to highest. Thus, the large distance between these outermost dashed lines shows values range greatly across most schools in the area. 

Bradford schools reported a similar upper quartile (27.4%) to the statistic for the Region (27.4%). However, the middle (19.8%) and lower quartiles (11.7%) for the area are both higher than the Regional averages (16.5%) and (8.5%). These higher measures imply the majority of schools in Bradford have a higher likelihood of children needing free school meals than the majority of schools in the Region.  

Regional variations exist. What about neighbourhood variation? 

In this map of Bradford (figure 2), local variation in eligibility and uptake is clear. The more populated southeast of Bradford has several wards where the percentage of children both eligible and, of those eligible, taking free school meals on census day is relatively high.   

Figure 2 – Bivariate map showing percentage of children eligible for free school meals and of those, who took one on census day. School data has been aggregated to ward level.

The school data has been aggregated into wards and gives some indications as to which areas of Bradford contain schools attended by children for whom food security is a concern.  The results are not unexpected given that 14 out of 30 Bradford wards are amongst the 10% most deprived in England (shown in bold in Figure 4). The two variables have a strong positive correlation, for example where there are high percentages of children eligible, a higher percentage of those children took a free school meal on census day.  It is important to note that the data used here reflects what happened on census day, considered a ‘normal’ school day.   

At a more granular level, the same spatial patterns can be seen across Bradford with graduated symbols.  In Figure 3, larger icons represent schools with a higher percentage of pupils that are known to be eligible for free school meals. The areal units underneath the schools are Lower Super Outputs Areas (LSOA) showing relative deprivation across England by decile. There is a clear relationship between more deprived areas and higher levels of free school meal eligibility. 34% of Bradford’s LSOAs fall within 10% of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England, whilst 16% fall within the least deprived, showing a stark contrast and potential for inequalities experienced by residents across the district. 

Figure 3 - Map showing schools in Bradford classified by percentage of children who were eligible for free school meals and made a claim on census day. Schools appear over the top of the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2019.

Figure 3 – Map showing schools in Bradford classified by percentage of children who were eligible for free school meals and made a claim on census day.  Schools appear over the top of the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2019. 

Figure 4 – Map showing schools in Bradford classified by percentage of eligible children who took a free school meal on census day.  Schools appear over the top of the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2019. 

Higher levels of eligibility are frequently used to allocate additional funding and interventions for children and can often be a proxy for deprivation (as eligibility is tied to income).  However, as with many demographic and socioeconomic measures, the underlying picture is most likely far more complex. Less than half of the children eligible (and who have already been claimed for) took advantage of free school meals, indicted by the maximum percentage of 43% (Figure 4).  The same spatial patterns occur when compared to eligibility in Figure 3, however the interpretation of such patterns is different. For example, schools in more affluent areas have a lower percentage of eligible pupils having a free school meal. There could be many reasons for this other than underlying demographics, such as an urban/rural split or size of school.  

Research has found that stigma plays a large role in impacting whether children who are eligible use the service or not.²  Anonymity is considered one of the best solutions to this problem, with the traditional method of providing vouchers that are handed to catering staff being identified as one reason children are so reluctant to take a free school meal.³ 

We cannot conduct analysis or reach any conclusions on stigma based on our data, however we can see that in less deprived areas, there was a lower percentage of eligible children taking free school meals on a ‘normal’ school day.  Whether this was because stigma is felt more keenly where a child may be one of a much smaller number eligible is unclear, but it is certainly worth considering.  It is important to note that eligibility measures only consider those who have made a claim for the service. 

What can we learn looking forwards? 

Worsening food security is another of the unfortunate consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue of whether to extend free school meals into the holidays has taken centre stage in the national conversation on several occasions. There are areas of high relative deprivation where free school meals are a necessity for a large percentage of an individual school’s population. Although the Government has changed its policy in response to sustained campaigns, using data to understand the local and national landscape with respect to free school meals will help inform more proactive and timely decision making.  

Bradford is just one instance of a highly disadvantaged region in the UK, where food access is one of the many issues for struggling residents. The most deprived areas in Bradford contain schools with higher percentages of pupils both eligible for and taking free school meals. This indicates the need for continued support in these communities, in order to minimise food insecurity. These areas will be significantly more disadvantaged and face serious financial pressures over winter, particularly over this uncertain period. 

If we can promote change in this area, it would then positively impact many outcomes in children’s lives later down the line. Systems must be put in place to combat food insecurity imminently. It is important for local authorities, such as Bradford, to have adequate resources to continue to provide free school meals to pupils when schools are closed due to COVID-19. In 2021, the Government’s extension of free school meals over the school holidays and closures needs to be the first reality of a resolution to get our children the necessities they deserve. 

³ Holford, Angus. (2015). Take-up of Free School Meals: Price Effects and Peer Effects. Economica. 82. 10.1111/ecca.1214

Originally posted by LIDA in December 2020 –

Free School Meals: a National Necessity

Alex Dalton and Tom Albone are part of our Data Scientist Internship Programme – and the Nutrition and Lifestyle Analytics Team – their work focusses on the power of Data for Public Good. The shared focus of their intern projects is inequalities in the local Bradford area, and one of the pressing local issues affecting this local community (as well as families nationally) is free school meals.

Here they have collaborated to discuss this issue, and the data available, in more detail. This article details the uptake of free school meals across the nation, looking to this Christmas period. A second article will follow which covers the issue in the local area of Bradford.

Why are free school meals needed in the UK?

Access to affordable and nutritious food is a growing problem in the UK. Since 2008 the use of foodbanks has been increasing [1], and the impact of government austerity measures have become apparent with levels of child poverty and food insecurity escalating.

As the economic ramifications of the Coronavirus pandemic emerge from the depths of the initial health scare, businesses are closing across the UK and there has been a record spike in redundancies.  Individuals and families alike are suffering emotionally and financially.

Financial status is a key indicator of food insecurity. Studies have shown how devastating household food insecurity is for health, social well-being, and child development1. Free school meals provide children with vital access to food. Vital in the immediate sense (hunger) and with longer-term consequences (poor health outcomes).

This article explores the uptake of free school meals in the UK, particularly within areas suffering from high levels of deprivation.

The UK has been reported as one of the worst-performing nations in the EU for food insecurity, with 19% of children under 15 living with food insecurity [2].

This is highlighted by the increase in uptake of free school meals: the government incentive to tackle the effects of food insecurity in children and young people. In recent months, the necessity of free school meals has been heavily discussed in the public eye and in government policy.

The UK government’s decision not to extend the free school meal scheme across school holiday periods since lockdown started has proved contentious. The drastic widening and deepening of food insecurities [2] [3] as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdowns resulted in the issue receiving a lot of public attention. Marcus Rashford, a professional football player, rallied support from the public and incentivised businesses’ donations.  The surge of support and speed of response succeeded in raising £20million to feed children in the UK and demonstrated how crucial the free school meal scheme is for children to access food in the UK.

Eligibility for Free School Meals in the UK

The percentage of students known to be eligible for free school meals has been rising year-on-year. Since 2018, the percentage across all schools has increased from 13.6% to reach 17.3% of students eligible in 2020.

To further understand the proportion of students relying on free school meals across all the UK, it is useful to look at the distribution of eligible students for the scheme per school.

The following analysis uses data recorded by the Office for National Statistics for the 2019/20 Academic Year. The data is recorded across all schools in the UK, however for our investigation independent schools have been excluded from the dataset as they do not appear to record free school meal data.

Figure 1. Plot showing the percentage of students eligible for free school meals per school on a census day in the 2019/20 Academic Year. Plots are per Region, indicating the quartiles with bw=0.1 and a uniform scale across the plots. Percentages are calculated per school using data collected by the ONS across all schools in the UK (excluding independent schools). The plot of students eligible on a census day is overlayed with the plot of students recorded actually taking free school meals on the census day (translucent violin plots). The darker edges showing those who did not take their free school meal.

It is important to note that the data refers to children who were eligible to receive, and who claimed, free school meals (FSM) by census day. The overlay of students recorded as taking FSM refers to eligible children who took a free school meal on census day. This second measure only provides an indication of what happened on the day of the census. However, for the purposes of this blog we can use them as an indicator of the proportion of those eligible that needed to use the service.

The distributions show that a significant proportion of children rely on free school meals across the country. More interesting is the variety of the distributions between Regions, illustrated by the shapes of the plots.

Northern Regions have a larger number of students that are eligible per school. Three quarters of schools (top dashed lines on plots) in the Northern Regions (e.g. North East, Yorkshire and Humber) have up to 30% of students eligible on average, with a spike of 36.5% in the North West illustrating that free school meals are more commonplace and required in these areas. In contrast, three quarters of schools in the Southern Regions (South East, South West, East of England) never exceed 20%.

The long thin violin plots, such as that of the North East show that the percentage of students eligible in schools ranges drastically across the region, with some schools having a particularly high proportion of eligible students. In comparison, the short ‘dumpy’ violins indicate the majority of schools have a similar proportion of eligible students, which here tends towards the lower end of the scale, illustrating the stark differences across the UK and inequalities in food security.

What can we learn looking forwards?

Food banks in the Trussell Trust network had been seeing year-on-year increases in levels of need; in a recent report they stated that:

“This (COVID19) crisis has landed after years of stagnant wages and frozen, capped working age benefits – leaving those on the lowest incomes vulnerable to income shocks”.

With children having spent a great deal of time off school during lockdown at home, pressures on family budgets have increased. During this time, efforts were made to provide families with free school meals despite the schools being closed. Even though this was seen as an essential need for many, it was not provided by the government until public opinion went against them.

With the economy taking hit after hit, those in the most deprived households are more likely to suffer the worst impacts. Recent data from a YouGov survey suggests that many households have fallen into food insecurity since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. More than three million people (6%) in the UK went hungry in the first 3 weeks of ‘lockdown’, with households reporting that a member had been unable to eat, despite being hungry, because they did not have enough food. Permanent or temporary unemployment appears to underlie lack of resources, with claims for Universal Credit approximately doubling since mid-March 2020 [4].

The demand for free school meals to be provided over the school holidays is driven by the extraordinary circumstances we all now find ourselves in.

These data let us see how issues of food security and free school meals disproportionately impact some areas more than others. As with the rate of COVID-19 infections and the government restrictions, it is useful to look at this on a local level. The city of Bradford is one such example and will be the focus of a further article.


[2] Barker, M., & Russell, J. (2020). Feeding the food insecure in Britain: learning from the 2020 COVID-19 crisis. Food Security, 12(4), 865-870.

[3] Power, M., Doherty, B., Pybus, K., & Pickett, K. (2020). How COVID-19 has exposed inequalities in the UK food system: The case of UK food and poverty. Emerald Open Research, 2.


First posted in December 2016 by LIDA –

Reflections on the dietary impacts of the Covid-19 lockdown period

This post is thanks to Vicki Jenneson, Postgraduate researcher in the Nutrition and Lifestyle Analytics team.

Vicki Jenneson – ANutr, MPH, MSc, Nutrition PhD Researcher in LIDA (

The closure of cafés, restaurants and work canteens during lockdown has imposed a significant change on the nation’s eating habits, with many of us now consuming all our meals at home.

Time gained back from the daily commute has provided some with the welcome opportunity to reignite a love for home-cooking; my social media feeds have been filled with positive images of people finding pleasure in the wholesome comfort of nourishing the ones they love. But for others, the kitchen is uncomfortable territory and an added pressure at what is already a difficult time.

Undoubtedly, the changes in food availability, tighter purse strings and an increased focus on health have impacted our diets and relationships with food. Anecdotally, we hear of more people growing their own food, reducing food waste and making the effort to support local food suppliers. But exactly how the current situation has affected our diets and nutritional status is the topic of ongoing research, some of which you can contribute to here. My own PhD research explores the utility of supermarket transaction records as a measure of population diet; the primary data collection phase for which started just this week. I therefore have the additional challenge of acknowledging that data for the current period probably isn’t representative of the ‘norm’. But I also have a unique opportunity to contribute to understanding of how the nation’s diets adapted.

For some people, the lockdown has meant a struggle to put food on the table, with lost incomes and missed school meals seeing more families turn to Universal Credit and foodbanks for support. But we’ve also seen a tremendous community spirit, with innovative flexibility from businesses and local volunteers helping to bring food to the most vulnerable members of society.

Others have looked to nutrients as a means to ‘boost’ their immunity. Despite public health advice insisting that taking supplements cannot protect against COVID-19, a friend of mine working for a supplement manufacturer reports that she’s never been busier and is running out of national supplies. Indeed, that many nutrients have a role to play in the normal functioning of the immune response appears to contradict this message, highlighting just how difficult it is to communicate population dietary advice. A recent MyNutriWeb diet and immunity webinar series I attended highlighted the role of the ageing immune system (immunosenescence), and of our gut microflora in interacting with our immune response mechanisms (our guts contain ~70% of our immune cells). Although not exclusive to Covid-19, we may perhaps hypothesise that factors affecting our gut microbiota, may at least go a small way to explain some of the differences in response to the coronavirus that we’ve seen across the population. For example, older adults living in residential care homes have lower gut microbial diversity than those living in community, associated with poorer health outcomes. This may result from reduced dietary diversity and environmental exposures (including surfaces in the outside world and from the kitchen in which food is prepared).

But, is it possible that some people’s diets may have actually improved during lockdown? Cooking at home and eating together as a family are both associated with a healthier diet. Increased meal planning has helped many of us reduce food waste, and fewer shopping trips are benefiting the environment too. Not only can home-cooking improve our relationship with food, it is associated with higher fruit and vegetable intake and better nutrient profiles. 

For example, around 75% of the salt we consume is already present in the foods we buy, mostly processed foods and those eaten out. So, cooking from scratch gives us the opportunity to take control of our salt intake. Like all nutrients, salt does have an important role to play in our bodies; for regulating fluid balance, enabling nerve transmission and, for muscle contractions. However, consuming too much salt puts us at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and stomach cancer. Salt’s properties make it extremely useful for the food industry. Firstly, it adds flavour, and not just saltiness; a small amount of salt also enhances our perception of sweetness, without extra sugar. Secondly, it increases the shelf-life of foods by inhibiting bacterial growth. Finally, salt influences the texture of foods by interacting with proteins. While recent food industry reformulation has helped us reduce our salt intake from 9.5g to 8.1g per day between 2003 and 2011, efforts have been poorer in the out of home sector, which isn’t subjected to the same labelling rules as the retail sector. And, as a nation, we’re still eating more than the recommended maximum 6g (1 teaspoon) per day for adults and children over 11 years. But continuing to cook from scratch, replacing salt with herbs and spices, and making our own spice mixes, sauces and marinades can help us to further reduce our salt intake. As we cut down on salt, our tastes also change.

Our food choices and shopping habits are entwined with multiple aspects of social context, including affordability, car ownership, cooking skills, and cultural norms. And so, our ‘food experiences’ of the Covid-19 lockdown period will be vastly different, dependent on our situation, and likely to follow a socioeconomic divide which may indeed serve to widen dietary inequalities.

But just as we’re looking to emerge from lockdown with a more balanced and sustainable outlook on many aspects of our daily lives, whether that’s more flexible working hours, or a continuation of homeworking and the environmental benefits of reduced commuting, there is also potential for a fresh outlook when it comes to diet. What if we could harness the positive resilience that many have shown? What if the ‘dig for victory’ attitude, the community support networks, and the scratch-cooking revolution could indeed become some of the lasting legacies of the hardships of lockdown?

Adapted from a University of Leeds, School of Geography Viewpoint piece released on 1st June 2020.

What can tweets about contact tracing apps tell us about attitudes towards data sharing for public health? (Part 1)

This post is thanks to Holly Clarke, LIDA Data Science intern in the Nutrition and Lifestyle Analytics team.

Holly Clarke is an Intern at Leeds Institute for Data Analytics, applying data science solutions to solve complex, real-world challenges. She is working for the LifeInfo project with Michelle Morris, researching attitudes towards novel lifestyle and health data linkages and how access to this information could improve public health. You can follow Holly on Twitter: @HollyEClarke

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means governments have been looking for technological solutions in order to reduce the spread of the virus. Contact-tracing apps are now being used, from Singapore’s ‘TraceTogether’ to ‘StopKorona!’ in North Macedonia. As restrictions on movement are eased in many countries, these apps aim to identify if an individual has been in contact with an infected person through Bluetooth and/or GPS signals. This provides alerts to users and creates early warnings of new outbreaks.  As these apps have been adopted, a huge amount of online discussion has followed about the benefits and concerns around sharing personal data for the benefit of public health. 

So much of this conversation seems novel. Several months ago, most in the UK would have gawked at the possibility of a government app privy to information about who they come into contact with. Yet, the phrase “we are in unprecedented times” has been difficult to escape in recent weeks.  

For me, the onset of the pandemic has coincided with a new research position with the LifeInfo project, under the supervision of Michelle Morris‘ expertise in Health Analytics. This project focuses on people’s attitudes towards sharing their lifestyle data – from supermarket loyalty card to fitness apps – and linking this to health records to drive research into the risk factors of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Access to these data could have immense benefit as millions of yearly deaths can be attributed to poor diet and physical inactivity.  

At the heart of this project is also the vital recognition that we must understand people’s concerns about such initiatives and adapt research accordingly. Part of my role is analysing free-text survey responses about the circumstances under which people would share different types of lifestyle data for health research and factors that might impact their decision to do so.  While the conversation about contact tracing apps and their place in our lives is certainly novel, many of the words and topics about these apps mimic those that come out of my analysis.  

This made me wonder how I could tap into the conversation about contact tracing apps and the insights this could give about data sharing, privacy, surveillance and public health. For the past two weeks I have been scraping tweets about coronavirus apps and will continue to do so as they are developed, trialed, and used in countries around the world.   

This is the first of a series of short blog posts about attitudes towards contact tracing apps and data-sharing for public health. Using text analysis and Natural Language Processing (NLP), I will be answering questions about the conversation around these apps. What topics are prevalent and how do people feel about sharing their data? How does this look in different countries and what role does context play? How does this relate to more general attitudes about data-sharing for public health benefit and what might the impacts be going forward? Twitter is by no means a direct expression of public opinion, but analysing tweets can give us important insights about people’s attitudes, news stories that shape narratives, and shifts in opinion over time.  

So, are people talking about contact tracing apps?  

The first thing to establish is whether people actually care about contact tracing apps. Here, the answer is an undeniable “yes!”. A total of 12,593 tweets were collected on the topic of COVID-19 apps produced during the two-and-a-half-week period between 24 April 2020 and 12 May 2020 (and limiting collection to those in the English language)1. Governments need around 60% of the population (80% of UK Smartphone users) to enable contact tracing apps for them to be effective, which could influence many people to consider their relationship with data-sharing that haven’t given much thought to it before.  

Tweets about coronavirus apps have gone from relatively low numbers (just 203 tweets on 25 April, the first full day of collection) to peaks of over 1300 tweets per day on the 27 April and 5 May. These peaks can be linked to the ‘COVIDSafe’ app release in Australia and the announcement that the NHS ‘track and trace’ app was to be trialed on the Isle of Wight in the UK (see figure 1a).  

Time series graph showing daily counts of tweets about COVID-19.  Shows a peak following the release of the COVIDSafe app in Australia on 26 April and a peak following the UK Government announcement on 4 May re testing of 'track and trace' app on the Isle of Wight.
Figure 1:  Time Series of Covid-19 app tweets showing (a) the number of tweets about Covid-19 apps per day (top) and (b) the number of geo-coded tweets that were produced in different countries highlighting Australia and the UK (bottom), 25 April –11 May 2020.  

Where are people talking about COVID-19 apps? 

Some tweets are geo-located, indicating the country and even city the tweets were produced. Although these tweets make up only a small proportion (2.5%) of the total tweets collected, they act as a sample to indicate where people were tweeting about COVID-19 apps.  

Graph showing locations of Geocoded Tweets about COVID-19 app - UK and Australia have the most tweets.
Figure 2: Locations of geo-located tweets about Covid-19 apps showing (a) the number of tweets collected from each country (top) and (b) their locations on the world map (bottom), 25 April –11 May 2020. 

Most tweets are shown to be produced in the UK and Australia. In these countries contact tracing apps have been nationally introduced and promoted (in the case of Australia) or locally trialed (in the case of the UK). Canada and the US currently constitute only a small proportion of tweet locations; however, this could change in the forthcoming weeks as these countries are yet to announce apps. 

India is the third most popular country for tweet locations where the contact tracing app ‘Aarogya Setu’ has been introduced with associated controversies about personal privacy. Many more tweets about this app have likely been created but in languages other than English, so are not included within the dataset. This is important to consider as insights gained from analysing  tweets will reflect a majority Western perspective. Some of the first countries to introduce contact-tracing apps are non-English speaking (for example South Korea) and additionally have restriction on access to Twitter (in the case of China).  

Over 80% of the geo-located tweets were produced in two countries – the UK and Australia.  Yet, this is not consistent across time.  As shown in figure 1b, during the first week of data collection the conversation was dominated by the Australian context (shown in blue), and this is consistent with the first peak of tweets related to the roll-out of the Australian contact tracing app. Following this, the second week of data collection shows the conversation has shifted towards the UK context (shown in orange) as the NHS app is trialed in the Isle of Wight.  

What do tweets say? 

Next week’s blog post will focus what people are saying about Covid-19 apps, whether attitudes are positive or negative, and if this differs based on the country and context.  The wordcloud below gives an initial insight into the current conversation around these apps.  Two findings stand out. First, context appears to play a large role in shaping the conversation. Words referring to key places and actors (both technological and state) are frequently included in tweets. These include ‘government’, ‘nhs’, ‘apple’, ‘google’, ‘India’, ‘Australia’ and ‘Isle [of] Wight’.  Second, it is striking that the words ‘privacy’ and ‘trust’ are amongst the most frequent words used, showing data management and personal privacy to be at the forefront of discussion.  

Word cloud of most frequent words included with COVID-19 app tweets.
Figure 3: Word cloud of most-frequent words included with Covid-19 app tweets2 

1Search terms included any reference to ‘corona/coronavirus/covid/covid-19 app’ as a single phrase and inclusive of alternative punctuation and spacing  

2Note: common ‘stop words’ are excluded, for example ‘is’ or ‘and’, also the words ‘corona’, ‘covid’ and ‘app’ are excluded as these were the search terms and thus highly frequent. 

Blog originally posted on the Consumer Data Research Centre web page on the 21st May 2020 –

What do university students eat?

Data scientists [my Nutrition and Lifestyle Analytics team] at the University of Leeds have been able to build a detailed picture of what 835 students ate, and when, by analysing the data linked to their pre-payment food cards.

The cards revealed what they were buying in the campus refectory and associated food outlets. 

The analysis gives the most accurate picture to date of first year student diets. Many previous studies have used food diaries, but their accuracy can be variable because they rely on the student remembering exactly – and being honest about – what they have eaten.  

Dr Michelle Morris, a University Academic Fellow in Health Data Analytics based at Leeds Institute for Data Analytics, said understanding student diet had public health implications.

Previous studies in the UK and the US have shown that “fresher” students are at risk of weight gain, probably as a result of the lifestyle changes that come with starting university.  

In the US, they talk of the “Freshmen 15”, the 15lbs (6.8kg) that students put on. In the UK, research indicates the average student gains 7.7lbs (3.5kg).  

The findings, Assessing diet in a university student population: A longitudinal food card transaction data approach, have been published in the British Journal of Nutrition

The study, which pre-dated the coronavirus outbreak and followed the students aged 18 to 24 over their first semester (12 teaching weeks), revealed student eating habits which clustered around seven dietary behaviours: 

  • Vegetarian: with popular purchases being salads, breakfast cereals, yoghurt and fromage frais and a notable absence of meat products 
  • Omnivores: which included the most average amounts of all products purchased, with above average amounts of ice cream, desserts and cakes, breakfast cereals and fish. 
  • Dieters: with above average purchases of soups, pasta, noodles and salad. 
  • Dish of the Day: which included above average purchases of meat and meat products. 
  • Grab and Go: which included above average purchases of sandwiches, crisps, nuts and eggs. 
  • Carb Lovers: with bread, cheese, egg products and pasta being among the top picks. 
  • Snackers: with confectionery, crisps, nuts being above average choices. 

Dr Morris, said the dietary patterns were ranked on the basis of “healthfulness”, with vegetarian the most healthful and snackers being the least. 

She added: “Our analysis shows that although some students followed one dietary pattern throughout the semester many switched between them.  

“Some students moved from a more healthy to a less healthy pattern; for example,  some vegetarians switched to an omnivore diet; and vice versa with some of the students who started off as snackers – the least healthful diet – did move to the Dish of the Day which offered a more balanced range of food options. 

“Worryingly perhaps, the most popular move was from a dieter pattern, to the snacking pattern.”

Females were found to be heavily represented among the vegetarians (88%) and dieters (80%) while the men dominated the dish of the day (84%) and grab and go (62%) diet patterns. 

This information could be used to target information about healthier eating to students.


Dr Morris said the most popular dietary pattern amongst the slightly older students, those aged between 20 and 24, was the omnivore pattern of eating – that could be due to the fact that they may already have lived away from home and settled into a more varied dietary pattern. 

She said: “The information from this analysis reveals the pattern of the students’ eating habits, and how that changes over time. That is information that could be used to target information about healthier eating to students.

“Research has shown that adult eating habits take root early in adulthood. So, time spent at University is a great time to encourage healthy eating behaviours that could remain with them for life.”  

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council through a Strategic Network for Obesity grant. Maintaining the anonymity of the students was of utmost importance at all stages of the research.  

This post is adapted from:

Why a blog?

Why have I created this blog? Aren’t there enough other sites to visit to read about your Nutrition and Lifestyle Analytics? What is the point in another?

All of these are valid questions, so here is why I am doing this:

-I want to be able to share with you some of the excellent work being done by my team at Leeds, shared all in one place.

-Nutrition and lifestyle analytics are an emerging field within data science and health research. It is an interdisciplinary space and research is coming from research areas that are not necessarily pure nutrition, physical activity or obesity related. In my work, I pull some of these ideas together, and this blog is a home for that work.

-Universities have their own web pages. There is researchgate, googlescholar,, github and many more…. Some of these are for sharing ‘finished’ work, some are for work in progress. Ideas and projects can be shared, but here I plan to make it all available from one place.

-This site will bring you what is new in Nutrition and Lifestyle Analytics research, with a personal touch.