Part One of the National Food Strategy published today (Wednesday 29th July) contains urgent recommendations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and preceding the end of the transition period with the European Union.
There are three quick and relatively straightforward things the Government could do to provide a “nutritional safety net” for children in poor households:
- Expansion of Free School Meals to every child from a household on Universal Credit. Children who are hungry at school struggle to concentrate, perform poorly, and have worse attendance records. Only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of a school meal. At present, only children from households earning less than £7,400 before benefits are eligible, excluding thousands of families on Universal Credit. Under this recommendation, we estimate an additional 5m 7-16 year olds would benefit from Free School Meals. This is estimated to cost an additional £670m a year.
- Expansion of the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to all areas in England, ensuring summer holiday support is available to all children in receipt of Free School Meals. An estimated 3 million children are at risk of hunger in the school holidays, with data showing food bank usage accelerating during this period. “Unhealthy” holidays can prevent pupils returning to school engaged, invigorated and ready to learn. In 2019, the programme reached just 50,000 children. Under this recommendation, we estimate an additional 1m children will participate in the programme. This is estimated to cost an additional £200m a year.
- Increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 per week, and where the parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit, expanding the scheme to pregnant woman and households with children under 4. CEOs from two major UK supermarkets have pledged to supplement the vouchers with additional free fruit and vegetables. This recommendation would strengthen the nutritional safety net for low income households, providing vouchers which can be used to buy vitamins, fruit, vegetables, and milk. The current value of the voucher has been eroded by inflation and not changed since 2009. Under this recommendation, an additional 290,000 pregnant women and children under the age of four will benefit. This is estimated to cost an additional £110m a year, plus the cost of a £5m communications campaign.
Britain’s poorest children are at risk of getting “left behind” according to the landmark study. It describes the country’s diet as a “slow-motion disaster” and “medical emergency” requiring immediate action. The report is Part One of the National Food Strategy, the first major review of the UK’s food policy in nearly 75 years.
It finds that diet is a key determinant of children’s life chances, essential for both physical and mental development. A poorly nourished child will struggle to concentrate and suffer from reduced educational prospects. The report unveils that the poor are more likely to suffer from both hunger and obesity. The latter is likely to continue into adulthood, creating a lifetime of health problems, the report says.
Author of the report Henry Dimbleby said:
“Unless action is taken to improve our food system, many thousands will continue to suffer. This does not have to be the case.
I welcome the Government’s action to tackle obesity, yet more must be done. Most urgently we must ensure that our most disadvantaged children – who are already at risk of being left behind by this crisis can access healthy food. The very foundation of equality of opportunity has to be a nutritious diet.
Although the recommendations in this report are merely a first step, I urge the Government to implement them quickly. In doing so, it will improve the health of the nation and be a necessary pillar of its ambition to level up society”.
Trade Deals: Sovereignty, Standards, Scrutiny
Part One of the National Food Strategy also finds that the UK had a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to decide what kind of trading nation it wanted to be. The Government should aspire to a “gold standard level of scrutiny”, and the report calls for the adoption of a statutory duty that would give Parliament the opportunity to properly scrutinise any new trade deals.
The report also urges the Government to only cut tariffs on products which meet the UK’s “core standards.” This would be achieved through “verification programmes,” enabling American farmers to sell non-hormone-treated beef to the U.K for example. Certification schemes should also be extended to environmental and climate protections where the impact is severe, for example, maintaining tariffs on beef reared on land recently cleared of rainforest.
Health: A Wake Up Call
The report takes aim at “misleading packaging”, accusing the food industry of “clothing itself, and its products in false virtue.” It criticises the promotion of High Fat, Sugar and Salt (HFSS) products – including “unhealthy multi-buy offers”, and the strategic placement of products near checkouts. The report also said restricting advertising was the “right decision” and welcomed the Government’s ambition to introduce a 9pm watershed for unhealthy products on television and online.
Drawing on evidence gathered before Covid-19, the study reveals that poor diets are responsible for one in seven deaths in the UK (90,000 a year), vastly more than traffic accidents (1,400 a year), and almost as deadly as smoking (92,000). The global pandemic has only heightened the situation’s urgency, with diet-related illnesses such as obesity increasing the chances of dying from coronavirus. Obese people are 150% more likely to be admitted to intensive care with COVID-19.
A New Green Revolution
The report urges the government to be bolder on sustainability and accelerate its ground-breaking Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. The policy would pay English farmers £2.4 billion a year to improve the countryside – and encourage carbon capture and increased biodiversity. According to the report, the government should raise its ambitions and get as many farmers as possible onto the pilots before 2024.
Part Two of the National Food Strategy is due to be published in 2021. It will include a root and branch examination of the food system and the economics that shape it. The report will also investigate issues of climate change, biodiversity, pollution, antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic diseases and sustainable use of resources.
Minette Batters – President, NFU said:
“Our farmers are rightly proud of the high standards they maintain. Now that the UK can pursue its own path through trade, it must ensure our environmental, animal welfare and safety standards are not undermined so that our farmers can continue producing high quality, sustainable food.
This is why we welcome the recommendation to ensure new trade deals are subjected to a ‘gold standard’ of scrutiny that is independent, evidence-based, holistic and statutory. This would allow us to pursue new deals and enjoy the benefits of free trade, without sacrificing the standards and values which British farmers work so hard to uphold.”
Jo Whitfield, Co-op Food CEO said:
“One of our main priorities is to help Co-op customers eat healthier but we understand that at a time when finances are stretched, having access to fresh produce can be a struggle for many. I’m delighted we are able to support the proposed extension to the Healthy Start Initiative which is a really positive step to help the most vulnerable in our communities, and we look forward to working with Jo Churchill MP and our fellow retailers to implement the scheme.”
Susan Jebb, Professor of Diet and Population Health:
“A nutritionally poor quality diet is the leading risk factor for ill-health in the UK, yet we do not treat it with the same seriousness afforded to other risk factors. That has to change. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call that obesity in particular increases the risk of suffering serious complications from the virus, but a poor diet also increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
This report makes clear the gravity of the situation and the stark inequalities that are evident across the food system. Children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are disproportionately affected by the harms of a poor diet, and this sows the seeds of health problems in later life. Importantly it sets out how we can help ensure that children have the opportunity to eat a healthy diet. Getting this right is a vital step to build a healthy future for the whole country.”
For more information and to download the report, click here.