One of the 2020 National Food Strategy’s four objectives was to escape the junk-food cycle. Henry Dimbleby’s report described the country’s eating habits as a “slow-motion disaster” and warned of a toxic connection between child poverty, poor diet and hunger. As we wrote last week, it is not always easy or cheap to choose healthy food options. Longer-term action to promote healthy eating must include tackling the “all-pervasive” junk-food culture and offering high-quality food education. More immediately – and as a public-health priority – we need to ensure that every child has the option of a healthy school meal every day. Astonishingly – scandalously – many children currently don’t. The Food Foundation’s latest campaign – #FeedtheFuture – is for free school meals to be extended to help 800,000 children living in poverty in England who don’t currently qualify for “this vital nutritional safety net”.
The chef and food campaigner Jamie Oliver called in October 2022 for the government to extend free school meals to all children living in households on Universal Credit. In England and Wales, children aged four and over are eligible for free school meals if they live in a household which gets income-related benefits (such as Universal Credit) and has an annual income of less than £7,400 after tax, not including welfare payments. But about 40% of universal credit claimants have jobs and earn more than the threshold, so their children do not qualify for free school meals.
One of the Food Foundation’s ‘pillars’ is called Improving Children’s Diets:
We know how important diet is to set children on a path of good health essential for their development and wellbeing. However, far too many children don’t get the diets they need, and lower-income households are disproportionately impacted. Evidence shows young people in the UK are eating too much saturated fat, sugars and salt and too little fibre, fruit and veg. Conditions such as diabetes and obesity are increasingly affecting children – diseases normally associated with adult life. Healthier foods are often not affordable for families on low incomes, and households with children are at higher risk of food insecurity than the general population.from the website of the Food Foundation
We are seeking to ensure every child across the UK can access and afford a healthy diet, and that the policy landscape and food system support all children to eat well. We do this by working with young people directly as well as civil society, academia, policy makers and businesses to drive improvements in children’s food policy and practice across the UK, informed by evidence and lived experience.
Seeking to ensure every child across the UK can access and afford a healthy diet. Ending food poverty is a laudable goal – but it isn’t cheap. In fact, many argue that the money just isn’t there for government to do more. Look at the resistance that the footballer Marcus Rashford faced when he campaigned in 2020 for free school meals to be extended to the school holidays.
They point out that government already does a great deal to support struggling families through its free school meals programme – around 1.9 million children were entitled to free school meals in England in 2022 (22.5% of the student population), plus 1.25 million children under the universal free school meal provision for infant schools – on top of a wide range of other benefits to support struggling families.
Some argue that the mindset that action by government is always the first answer to a problem is a damaging one. Government cannot do everything and should not try, they say. Individuals and families – and the local community – must step up and do more to help themselves.
However, the facts speak for themselves. While we debate how best to address the problem, children go hungry – possibly millions of them. The Food Foundation says that 2.5 million children were living in food-insecure households over the last six months and that a third of young children eat less than one portion of veg a day. The poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has estimated that 4.3 million children across the UK live in what is called ‘relative poverty’, but only 2.3 million children currently get free school meals (figures quoted by the BBC).
LBL is not party-political. However, it is rooted in the idea that it is folly to continue as we are. It cannot be left solely – or even primarily – to individual choice and tinkering around the edges of existing policies and approaches. Something more radical and transformative is required – a collective approach to obesity, led by and including an active, interventionist role for government – if we are going to prevent a public health disaster in the decades to come.
Life-Based Learning is an approach to education and development for children and young people in which the life challenges that we all face – now and in the future – become the focus of a fully rounded, life-based approach to learning. Tackling obesity – and promoting children’s physical health and wellbeing more generally – is one such challenge.
Education is important so that people have the knowledge and skills that empower them to make informed individual choices around healthy lifestyles – what to eat, whether to exercise and so on.
But it also needs a collective effort, with government driving forward significant changes in how we educate our children and young people. We need to rethink. We need to change our common frame of reference so that healthy lifestyles become an urgent priority.
Image at the head of this article by congerdesign from Pixabay.