Nearly four million British children are too poor to eat healthily, study finds

'A healthy diet, which we know is important for our health and development, should not be unaffordable to so many people'

Chris Baynes
Wednesday 05 September 2018 17:32 BST

The families of nearly 4 million children would struggle to afford enough fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods to meet the government’s nutritional guidelines, according to a study of food poverty in the UK.

Children living in low-income households face an increased risk of diet-related illnesses such as obesity and diabetes because they are priced out of eating healthy, the Food Foundation think tank found.

The research found the poorest fifth of families would have to set aside more than 40 per cent of their income after housing costs to meet Public Health England’s (PHE) nutritional recommendations.

The Department for Health agency’s Eatwell guide includes dietary advice for children and adults based on five food categories: fruit and vegetables; carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice and pasta; proteins including beans, fish, eggs and meat; dairy; and oils and spreads.

The Food Foundation calculated that a family of two adults and two children aged between 10 and 15 would need to spend £103.17 a week to follow the guidelines, based on the government's official cost estimates.

The thinktank said its study was the first to investigate how affordable PHE’s recommendations were to a typical British family.

Researchers calculated that the 20 per cent of UK households that earn less than £15,860 a year would have to spend an average of 42 per cent of their income after rent on food to eat a healthy and balanced diet.

By comparison, the highest-earning 10 per cent of families would need to spend only six per cent of their income to following the Eatwell guidelines.

There are 3.7 million children living in the poorest fifth of households - families the Food Foundation said were “likely to be unable to afford a healthy diet as defined by the government”.

Anna Taylor, its executive director, said: “The government’s measurement of household income highlights the fact that millions of families in the UK cannot afford to eat in line with the government’s own dietary guidance. It’s crucial that a coordinated cross-government effort develops policy that accounts for the cost of its recommended diet, and creates a food system that does not consign those on lower incomes to the risk of diet-related illness.”

The Food Foundation said 47 per cent of UK households – about 14 million - did not spend enough money on food to meet the dietary recommendations. The proportion rises to 60 per cent for single-parent families, while less than a fifth of unemployed people spend enough to meet Eatwell's definition of a healthy and balanced diet.

The findings come after an exclusive poll for The Independent revealed in June that nearly four million adults in the UK have been forced to use food banks.

Labour MP Sharon Hodgson, who chairs a parliamentary inquiry into child food poverty, said it was a “great concern” that “so many children and families in the UK are at risk of going hungry or going without a healthy meal each day”.

“It cannot be right that 50 per cent of households in the UK currently have insufficient food budgets to meet the government’s recommended Eatwell guide,” she added. “A healthy diet, which we know is important for our health and development, should not be unaffordable to so many people.”

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said: “This report suggests a healthy balanced diet in line with the Eatwell Guide costs around £6 per day for an adult – we are currently spending about the same amount eating poorly. Our food choices are affected by other factors such as the volume of fast food outlets on our streets and promotions of unhealthy foods in our shops, highlighting why our work to improve the nation’s diet is so important.”

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