Over 100 health leaders and campaigners have united with prominent public health organisations in a letter to the Prime Minister, expressing growing alarm over rising child food insecurity as a result of the rising cost of living, and the need for immediate action.
The letter to PM Rishi Sunak requests that he adopt three immediate, top-priority initiatives to combat child food insecurity, support a healthy population, and promote a thriving economy.
The letter, signed by the Faculty of Public Health, the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Royal Society of Public Health, and the School and Public Health Nurses Association, has received widespread support from Parliamentarians and third-sector organisations, such as Sustain, the Children’s Food Campaign, and many others.
Over thirty members of parliament and twenty members of the House of Lords have also signed the letter, which urges the Prime Minister to support the health and development of children by expanding Free School Meals, the National School Breakfast Programme, and the Healthy Start scheme for infants and young children.
In September 2022, it was estimated that over a quarter of households with children had food insecurity, and the present cost-of-living crisis will increase this percentage.
Food insecurity in childhood relates to increased anxiety, poor mental health, poor social and emotional development, and lower academic performance.
The authors of the letter made three important requests of the government in an effort to combat the crisis and give children and families a badly needed safety net. These are:
- Increase access to Free School Meals for all children living in Universal Credit families by abolishing the £7,400 threshold set in 2018.
- Increase financing for the National School Breakfast Programme to first extend service from 2,500 to 5,000 schools, with a long-term objective to serve a greater proportion of underprivileged students.
- Increase access to the Healthy Start programme for all families with young children receiving Universal Credit.
The signatories advocate the development of further targeted taxes on unhealthy food and drink, based on the successful Soft Drinks Industry Fee and the National Food Strategy’s suggestions for an industry levy on salt and sugar in processed food and drink items.
Paid at source by makers of less nutritious items, such policies would also improve the health of families throughout the United Kingdom by reformulating products to minimise sugar and salt intake, saving the NHS billions of dollars and promoting a healthier workforce.
The signatories note that this would create income that might be invested to improve the nutritional, physical, and emotional health of children.
Professor Kevin Fenton CBE, President of the Faculty of Public Health said: “As the cost-of-living crisis bites, many families across the UK are currently struggling with the reality of food poverty, unable to meet even their most basic needs.
“Initiatives such as Free School Meals, the National School Breakfast Programme, and the Healthy Start scheme are a vital lifeline, but with too many children and families unable to access these services Government is missing an opportunity to firmly address the reality and impacts of child food poverty, which impairs the lives and life chances of disadvantaged children and young people across the UK.
“To protect and improve the health of disadvantaged communities across the UK, and support a healthy, productive population, we call upon Government to fully implement our recommendations to expand access to these vital services for those who need them most.”
Sharon White OBE, Chief Executive Officer of the School and Public Health Nurses Association said: “School nurses are witnessing and being asked to support a worrying number of families who cannot feed their children adequately due to the cost-of-living crisis; children are turning up to school cold, tired, hungry, worried, sad and, as a result, unable to learn.
“Free school meal provision would go a long way to addressing this rising public health emergency; this a basic right and urgent need.”
Professor Jim McManus, President of the Association of Directors of Public Health and Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire said: “Poverty is the most important determinant of children’s health in the UK and, as local leaders for the nation’s health, Directors of Public Health see first-hand the impact healthy food has for a healthy, thriving population.
“It is vitally important therefore that the Government acts on the evidence and expands access to Free School Meals and Healthy Start. Only then can we start to address the inequity in outcomes we are seeing in children’s health.”
William Roberts, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health said: “School meals were originally brought in to help support children to learn, in the belief of creating a healthy and productive nation.
“Sadly, we’re in a situation where many children are going hungry, we’re facing a tough economic future and record numbers of people are out of work because of ill health.
“Now is the time to ensure we invest in the future of the country by ensuring that our children don’t go hungry, and schools can provide meals free of charge so that every child can have the freedom to flourish.”