The cost-of-living crisis has led to soaring food insecurity across the UK, with many low income households making less nutritious food choices in order to survive.
A new report has revealed that the amount of vegetables being purchased in the UK has fallen to its lowest level in 50 years, with healthier foods now almost three times as expensive per calorie as less healthy foods.
Lack of access to nutritious food is affecting millions around the country, with huge numbers of families experiencing food insecurity, and children’s diets increasingly consisting of cheap, ultra processed food which is far more affordable and easily available.
It’s a cause for increasing alarm, with a lack of essential nutrients linked to prohibited growth and brain development, and bringing serious long-term health implications for children and adolescents including digestive disorders and mental health problems.
So what’s being done to tackle these issues? From government initiatives to charity campaigns, here are some of the solutions being taken to address the challenges of children’s nutrition in the UK.
The Free School Meals scheme: Can it reach more children?
The UK government’s scheme of providing free meals to eligible students — the Free School Meals (FSM) program — has had a lot of support, and is a lifeline for millions of families across the country. It guarantees the poorest children a hot and nutritious meal five days a week, alleviating the immediate burden on families.
But charities have warned that the scheme doesn’t go far enough. Around 800,000 children are living in poverty but not eligible for free lunches, according to the Food Foundation, making it very much a “postcode lottery”. Campaigners, politicians and charities are calling on the government to go further and make free meals available for all primary school children across England.
The Scottish Government expanded free school meal entitlement in 2023 and currently has the most comprehensive offer of free school meals of any nation in the UK.
Food charities and organisations including the Food Foundation, Chefs in Schools and School Food Matters launched a joint campaign in 2022 calling on the government to urgently extend eligibility to all children from families in receipt of universal credit. The campaign, Feed the Future, was backed by celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Knowledge is power: Education for parents, caregivers and health professionals
Empowering parents and caregivers with the knowledge to make informed nutritional choices is vital. Providing children and their families with information about balanced diets, the importance of fresh produce, and the risks of excessive processed foods, can help cultivate a generation that makes informed and healthier food choices.
Communal efforts such as community kitchens, cooking classes, and nutrition workshops are springing up around the country, creating a network of support for families. This not only enables the sharing of practical knowledge but also fosters a sense of shared responsibility for the wellbeing of children within a community.
Educational institutions such as the London Metropolitan University are also taking action to support communities through its health sciences courses and long-standing commitment to researching nutrition and health disparities. London Met became the first university to implement the BRITE Box initiative, a project dedicated to delivering recipe kits, complete with ingredients and an illustrated recipe guide, to families in need of affordable, health-conscious meals.
Collaborating to change dietary trends
As the cost-of-living crisis hinders access to nutritious foods, food businesses and retailers have a unique opportunity to drive positive change by embracing innovation and fostering collaboration.
Supermarkets have a crucial role to play; in the UK, almost 90% of retail grocery sales are from within supermarkets. The products that these large food retailers choose to sell, and how they promote and price them, have a major impact on our diets.
By working to increase sales of nutritious food and to reduce the flood of high fat, sugar and salt products, there’s a huge opportunity to make changes that are good for both businesses and public health.
A partnership between Urban Health and the Collaboration for Healthier Lives UK is funding the evaluation of an industry-led programme exploring what supermarkets and manufacturers can do to improve the health of consumers.
Led by Tesco and Danone as Co-Chairs, the first phase of trials took place in stores in Lambeth and Southwark and found that by making changes, companies were successfully able to increase sales of healthier foods, and reduce sales of unhealthy foods, with no negative impact on business.
Many food retailers have developed health and sustainability plans, and are committed to putting them into action. Increasingly, investors are now also viewing consumer health as a material ESG issue.
Beyond this, governments and communities are looking for ways to work together to make nutrient-rich foods more accessible and affordable. Through subsidies, community gardens, and initiatives to support local farmers, they’re ensuring that fresh and wholesome options are within reach for families, regardless of their socio-economic status.
Learn more about specific solutions and innovations in the realm of children’s nutrition in our news-style programme, Prioritising Children’s Health, launching in 2024.
Social accounts to follow and support:
- The Food Foundation: @Food_Foundation
- School Food Matters: @sfmtweet
- Sustain: @UKSustain
- Children’s Food Campaign: @ChildrensFood
- Bite Back 2030: @BiteBack2030
- Child Poverty Action Group: @CPAGUK
- Impact on Urban Health: @ImpUrbanHealth
- Jamie Oliver: @jamieoliver
- Chefs in Schools: @ChefsinSchool