Experts warn of major impact on children’s health without proper nutrition at school

Feed the Future: ‘The type of food you eat as a child has lasting effects’

Daniel Keane
Wednesday 19 October 2022 17:01 BST
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Both food insecurity and poor diets could leave British schoolchildren with ‘dramatically’ worse long-term health outcomes
Both food insecurity and poor diets could leave British schoolchildren with ‘dramatically’ worse long-term health outcomes (PA Wire)

Children in the UK will be more susceptible to major health problems in the future without “urgent” action to ensure they eat a more nutritious diet at school, experts have warned.

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Both food insecurity and poor diets could leave British schoolchildren with “dramatically” worse long-term health outcomes, leading paediatricians and nutritionists have said.

It comes as our Feed the Future campaign, in partnership with a coalition of organisations coordinated by the Food Foundation, reaches 215,000 signatories to a petition urging the prime minister, Liz Truss, to extend free school meals to all families on universal credit in England. Around 800,000 in England live in households that rely on universal credit but miss out on free school meals.

Dr Michael McKean, a consultant respiratory paediatrician and vice president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said that a poor diet worsened health outcomes for children in “a myriad” of ways. “There are a lot of adults who have severe cardiovascular diseases or cancer and the causes originate in childhood. The type of food you eat as a child has lasting effects that make you vulnerable to developing serious illnesses in your sixties and seventies. Poor nutrition also reduces a child’s ability to fight infections. We saw this in many adults during the Covid-19 pandemic but it also affects children.”

Dr McKean said that children who eat a poor diet are “more likely to suffer an illness needing NHS treatment” later in life and this would “cost society more money” in the long run. “As paediatricians, we are watching this unfold. This didn’t happen 20 years ago nearly as much as it is happening now. Something has shifted very dramatically and children’s health has got a lot worse.”

The cost of living crisis has also forced many children to skip meals during the day. Last week, we reported how headteachers told The Independent they were aware of pupils stealing from supermarkets and the canteen to stave off hunger.

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Dr Annette Creedon, nutrition manager at the British Nutrition Foundation, said that hunger could have a profound psychological impact on children and diminish their ability to learn. She said: “Children who experience food insecurity are at an increased risk of behavioural and emotional issues which affect their ability to engage academically as well as being at a higher risk of diet-related diseases, poor child growth and a shorter life span.”

She added: “Hunger has also been associated with depression and iron deficiency which is known to impair learning and result in decreased productivity in school-age children. Having a regular eating pattern helps the body to regulate blood sugar and this helps to regulate hormones that control mood and the ability to concentrate.”

In recent years, the government has been urged to put packed lunches at the heart of its focus on healthy food in schools amid fears that sugary drinks, chocolate and crisps are damaging children’s health. A 2016 study by researchers at the University of Leeds found that less than 2 per cent of primary school packed lunches in England met nutritional standards.

But Stephanie Slater, chief executive of the charity School Food Matters, said it was “very difficult” for parents on low incomes to provide a nutritious packed lunch. “What we are hearing anecdotally from headteachers is that there is a stigma and shame around bringing in an inadequate packed lunch,” she said.

“We hear stories of children coming in with nothing in their packed lunches or sitting quietly on their own because they are embarrassed. This is shameful. Ask any adult – when you are full of sugar or hungry you can’t work or learn. We don’t need studies to tell us that.”

She said it was often left up to teachers to “police” the nutritional value of packed lunches in the absence of formal government regulations. “These conversations can be awkward for teachers and lead to tension with parents,” she added.

A PwC study we published last week found that extending free school meals to all children in poverty in England would amount to economic benefits of £2.5bn over 20 years. Dr Creedon said that extending access to free school meals could have a “positive impact on vulnerable households facing food insecurity”. “It would also improve the nutritional intake of children and the educational attainment gap in the UK,” she added.

But to improve long-term health outcomes for children, Dr McKean said that policymakers who had “taken their eye off the ball” would need to make the issue a priority in government. “We have forgotten that children and young people should be the most precious assets we have. They are our future, and it is our choice whether they all have access to good nutrition.”

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