The first part of a major review into the UK’s food systems and eating habits has recommended a number of steps to tackle childhood hunger and poor nutrition.
The National Food Strategy, published on July 29, is authored by the co-founder of Leon restaurants, Henry Dimbleby. He has been appointed the UK’s new food “tsar” — meaning the government has officially tasked him with helping it address issues around food. He has produced this report with help from other experts.
In the first of what will be a two-part strategy — reportedly the first national food strategy since war-time rationing — it also underscores the importance of the UK upholding high food standards in trade deals after Brexit.
The report warns that the chaos brought by COVID-19 will “pale in significance” to that brought by climate change. But the second part of the strategy, which will focus more on the climate crisis and biodiversity, won’t be published until 2021.
Among the policy changes recommended, the National Food Strategy calls for up to 1.5 million more children aged seven to 16 to be included in the UK’s free school meals programme.
It would mean all children from households where benefits are being claimed could access free school meals. According to the report, currently “only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of a school meal.”
“The effects of hunger on young bodies and minds are serious and long-lasting,” the report says.
Highlighting the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dimbleby writes that: “In the post-lockdown recession, many more families will struggle to feed themselves adequately.”
The COVID-19 lockdown has certainly exacerbated UK food poverty, which was already a serious problem — with a record 1.6 million food parcels given out by the food bank network the Trussell Trust in 2018-2019.
The Food Foundation revealed in May that over 200,000 children had been forced to skip meals during the country’s lockdown that started on March 23. While a survey in April estimated that 1.5 million people were going a whole day without food on any given day, partly because of school closures putting pressure on family budgets.
The report recommends that the government moves quickly to “shore up the diets of the most deprived children using existing, proven mechanisms.”
As well as expanding free school meals at lunchtime, the report authors recommend that all children who receive free school meals should be able to access summer holiday food support to battle “holiday hunger”.
This issue was recently highlighted by footballer Marcus Rashford who successfully called on the government to reverse its decision to withdraw free school meals from children over the course of the summer holidays. Following the government’s U-turn, the scheme will now be extended into the summer holidays.
During 2019’s summer break, 50,000 children from low-income families had access to free summer-camp style sports activities that also come with a meal. Dimbleby stresses in his report that access to these summer activities must be extended across the country to reach at least 1.1 million children.
The health risks of poor diets have been highlighted during the pandemic. But before COVID-19, poor diet was responsible for 90,000 deaths annually in the UK, NHS research shows — something that Dimbleby’s report highlights as a reason to improve nutrition across the board.
A further recommendation is for the “Healthy Start” scheme — which provides vouchers for fresh fruit, milk, and vegetables — to be increased to £4.25 a week and extended to all pregnant women, and to all households with a child under the age of four where a parent is claiming benefits.
The recommendations have been broadly welcomed by people in the food and education sector.
Paul Whiteman, leader of the Nation Association of Head Teachers, told the BBC that too many children “arrive at school hungry and unable to learn.”
"Free school meals at least guarantee that children going hungry at home get one nutritious meal a day," he said.
Whereas Tim Lang, the emeritus professor of food policy at London’s City University, told the Guardian the report was, “the beginning of good” because it sought to address the impact of structural inequalities on food and nutrition.
“It recognises that consumers with unequal information cannot deal with the power of the [food] industry,” Lang said.
Food and the climate
While the second part of the National Food Strategy in 2021 will focus more on agriculture and climate, the report published on Wednesday does note that climate change poses serious risks to food security and health.
It stresses that post-Brexit trade deals are a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to make deals that uphold standards and don’t wave through food that has been produced in a very environmentally-damaging way.
The report recommends verification schemes be brought in to ensure this, that would for example identify if imported beef has been reared on land recently cleared of rainforest.
The report further notes that there have been delays to an initiative called “Environmental Land Management”, in which the government will pay farmers in England £2.4 billion a year to make changes like investing in carbon capture methods, and increasing the biodiversity of the countryside.
However, the author says that these plans should not be delayed and implemented straight away.
“Now is the time to act,” Dimbleby writes, urging the government to “be bolder, go faster."