Government inaction on food insecurity puts most vulnerable children at risk

By Agencies
July 7, 2020

The way Britain produces, manufactures, sells and consumes food is a barrier to healthy eating, hitting the poorest hardest, a group of Peers has said.

And current Government policies, or lack of them, condemn many children to a life of ill health, cost the NHS billions, and damage the environment according to the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee.

In a wide-ranging report, Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food, published 6 July 2020, the committee says that the Government’s recommended healthy diet is too expensive for many families.

Without enough time, knowledge and money to shop for healthier food, the poorest are most at risk from a system which actively encourages highly processed, less healthy food by making it cheaper, more heavily promoted and easier to buy.

Urgent action is needed to ensure a healthier population, a healthier environment, to level up the most deprived communities and save the NHS billions spent treating obesity and avoidable diet-related diseases.

People in Britain consume more highly processed food than those in any other European country, and Britain has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe.   Adults and children living in the most deprived areas are about twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas, contributing to a difference in healthy life expectancy of about 20 years between the richest and poorest people in the country.

COVID-19 has made an already dreadful situation worse and should be a “wake-up call” for urgent action, according to the committee. Before the coronavirus pandemic too many people did not have enough money to feed themselves or their families properly, relying on food banks to survive.  In the past few months the use of food banks has shot up by a reported 81 per cent.

Lord Krebs, chair of the committee, said: “Problems of diet and ill-health have been staring us in the face for decades, but successive Governments have done precious little about it.  While this affects everyone, people in poverty either can’t afford enough to eat or have unhealthy diets.

“Many of Britain’s poorest families have little or no choice. They either go without food or buy unhealthy food because that’s what they can afford and get hold of. The Government knows about the problem. It’s time to stop the dither and delay, endless talking and consultation, and get on with it.”

Anna Taylor, Executive Director of the Food Foundation, said: “This landmark report clearly explains the raft of actions needed to tackle our nation’s dietary inequalities which have been highlighted so starkly by the Covid pandemic.

“This report shows that millions of families can’t eat well unless they have sufficient income and an environment which makes the healthy choice the easiest. People can no longer wait for lengthy government consultations which languish in Whitehall. Every day that passes where the odds are stacked against families securing a healthy diet is a missed opportunity to secure a healthy future for our children.”

One in five people in Britain live in poverty and this country has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the European Union, accounting for 20 per cent of all severely food insecure people in Europe.

Agriculture is “environmentally unsustainable” too, according to the committee. If Britain is to meet its net zero emissions target to combat climate change, farmers must be supported fully and rewarded for environmental outcomes.

The committee wants the Government without delay to:

  • Start to measure how many people live with food insecurity, and analyse why 
  • Understand the cost of a healthy diet and incorporate this into benefits calculations
  • Act to curb excessive advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods by the food industry
  • Step up pressure on the food industry to reduce sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and calories in processed food, and introduce mandatory requirements where change has not happened
  • Ensure that food initiatives for disadvantaged children, such as Healthy Start and free school meals are properly funded, implemented and monitored
  • Establish an independent body to oversee the implementation of a National Food Strategy and report annually to Parliament on progress
  • Use the opportunity of the Agriculture Bill to encourage production and consumption of healthier food and ensure that it delivers the public environmental goods for which it is designed.

Commenting on the report, Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This report should serve as an urgent wake up call to the Government. Families should be able to access not only enough food, but also the food that they need to stay healthy. With over 200,000 children pushed into poverty by the Coronavirus crisis, our members know that many will go hungry unless radical steps are taken immediately.

"Food poverty and insecurity have a severely detrimental impact on a child’s ability to learn in school. It affects their attainment, confidence and mental health. 4.5 million children will be trapped in poverty by Christmas – Government must act now to implement a nationwide strategic plan to increase household incomes and release families from the shame and indignity of having to rely on foodbanks and food voucher schemes.

“The global health crisis has seen communities come together through hardship and adversity – when we move beyond this pandemic, we must build back a society in which no child comes to school too hungry to learn."

* Read the report here

* Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/408/food-poverty-health-and-environment-committee/

* National Education Union https://neu.org.uk/

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