Children are unfairly facing the effects of diet equality as the cost-of-living crisis sweeps the UK.
Children living on the breadline are suffering due to chronic food inequality, according to scientific evidence presented at a British Nutrition Foundation conference in London today (November 15).
Delegates heard case studies of youngsters who shared the hardship of trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle when their parents are forced to choose between heating and eating.
Variables such as too much access to cheap food outlets and not enough access to free school meals play a major role in contributing to diet inequality, which was the topic of today’s conference. Professor Corinna Hawkes, Director, Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London described the issue as “critical and topical”, during her opening speech.
The latest national data shows there are more than four million children living in poverty across the UK as a result of austerity, the pandemic and now the ongoing and spiralling cost of living crisis.
Insufficient access to nutritious food is a key part of defining poverty or food insecurity, with children being some of the worst affected.
A study conducted by Professor Julie Brannen and Professor Rebecca O’Connell found that half of parents living in low-income households sheltered their children from food insecurity by limiting their own food intake or skipping meals.
While three-quarters of mums said they bought or prepared meals that were “filling rather than nutritious”, by bulking out meals with cost-effective carbohydrates like pasta or rice.
But the dependency on high sugar, high fat, convenient food only exacerbates the problem of diet inequality with young people and children, not developing tastes for “good or nutritious” foods, it was heard today.
In a poignant statement read by Prof Brannen, a boy called Jimmy said: “sometimes I go to bed hungry. I just started to grow and when I started to grow, I think my belly started to grow too”.
That is why the importance of eating at school must not be overlooked, as several nutrition experts including Katie Palmer, Programme Manager for Food Sense Wales explained today.
Despite all children in Brannen and O’Connell’s study coming from low-income households only half were entitled to free school meals. Many of these children said the allowances were not enough to fill them up and that they felt embarrassed by the smaller portion sizes they may receive compared to their classmates who paid.
Those discrepancies brought about feelings of shame and embarrassment in children living on lower incomes, with some saying they felt singled out by staff and lunchtime supervisors.
The effects of living hand to mouth stretch beyond its health implications, with the social ramifications rarely spoken about. Professor Hawkes, the host of today’s British Nutrition Foundation Annual Day said: “Food is about so much more than nutrition. It is hugely symbolic and plays a major role in people’s lives.”
During the conference, members also heard several calls to action for major supermarkets to take responsibility for the role they can play in helping to reduce food inequality. Nikita Sinclair, Portfolio Manager at Impact on Urban Health said: “If we want our children to be healthy, thrive and grow up to give back to society, we must fix our food system.”
Last week, Which? launched its Priority Places for Food Index, which looks at the nation’s access to supermarkets, online grocers, food support and barriers. Sue Davies, MBE, Head of Consumer Rights and Food Policy at Which? said research has shown an “incredibly depressing picture of people struggling.” The tool is accessible to all and has “huge potential to identify where the people who need the most support are and why.”
Furthering the discussion around the significance of Free School Meals in a struggling climate, attendees also heard about several other schemes across the UK which are striving to ensure children have access to healthy food, all year round. Sara Stanner, Science Director, British Nutrition Foundation said: “We recognise the need for all children to have access to healthier food in schools, alongside provision of good food and nutrition education which we support through our Food-a fact of life education programme”.
About the British Nutrition Foundation
Connecting people, food and science for better nutrition and healthier lives
The British Nutrition Foundation, a registered charity, delivers impartial, authoritative and evidence-based information on food and nutrition. Its core purpose is translating evidence-based nutrition science in engaging and actionable ways, working with an extensive network of contacts across academia, health care, education, communication and the food chain. A core strength of the Foundation is its governance structure (described in the Articles of Association), which comprises a Board of Trustees, Advisory Committee, Scientific Committee, Editorial Advisory Board, Education Working Groups and a Nominations Committee, on which serve senior/experienced individuals from many walks of life. The composition is deliberately weighted towards the scientific ‘academic’ community, based in universities and research institutes, and those from education, finance, media, communications and HR backgrounds.
The British Nutrition Foundation’s funding comes from: membership subscriptions; donations and project grants from food producers and manufacturers, retailers and food service companies; contracts with government departments; conferences, publications and training; overseas projects; funding from grant providing bodies, trusts and other charities. The British Nutrition Foundation is not a lobbying organisation nor does it endorse any products or engage in food advertising campaigns. More details about the British Nutrition Foundation’s work, funding and governance can be found at: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/our-work/who-we-are/.
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