The Government must take urgent action to ensure children receive adequate nutrition, and to avoid a ‘serious public health issue’ as families struggle with the cost of living, the UK’s leading public health bodies have warned.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (2 February) members of the UK’s leading public health bodies have urged the Government to lead a ‘co-ordinated and sustainable response’ to the growing issue of child insecurity.
As of September 2022, a quarter of households with children experienced food insecurity, which is known to contribute to anxiety, poor mental health, poor emotional development, and reduced achievement in school.
The letter to the Prime Minister, signed by the Faculty of Public Health, Association of Directors of Public Health, Royal Society for Public Health, and the School and Public Health Nurses Association, called on the Government to implement three changes in order to tackle this serious issue.
Executive director of the Institute of Health Visiting, Alison Morton, said: ‘Health visitors see the reality behind the headlines, with more families unable to afford basic essentials and turning to food banks to feed their children. This needs to be taken seriously as poverty is damaging to children.
‘Families living in poverty with babies and young children are often hidden behind front doors and their struggles are invisible to other services. This is why health visitors are speaking up about this and the Institute of Health Visiting has joined over 100 signatories calling on the government to take action.’
This year, a survey of health visitors found that 90% of those surveyed reported that there had been an increase in poverty affective families and needing to access foodbanks. This rise in childhood food insecurity was accompanied by 83% reporting a rise in perinatal mental illness.
Three recommendations to the Government
1. Expand access to Free School Meals for all children in households receiving Universal Credit by removing the £7,400 income cap.
– In October 2022, there were an estimated 800,000 children living in poverty who did not have access to Free School Meals. Moreover, England lags behind Scotland and Wales where all primary school students will receive free school means by 2024.
2. Increase funding to the National School Breakfast Programme
– This would allow the programme to expand delivery initially from 2,500 schools to 5,000, with a long-term plan to provide coverage to a higher percentage of disadvantaged pupils.
3. Promote access to the Healthy Start scheme, and expand access to all families with young children who receive Universal Credit.
– The authors call of the Government to commit to a £5m campaign to increase uptake of the healthy start scheme among parents eligible for universal credit
Sharon White, chief executive of the School and Public Health Nurses Association (SAPHNA), 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.’
In addition to the recommendations the public health bodies also suggested that to deliver on these suggestions to tackle childhood food insecurity the Government should use targeted levies to raise funding for public health investment.
An expansion of the Sugar Drinks Industry Levy or the creation of a new sugar and salt tax would create a long term stream of funding to support the viability of the free school meal programme, said the letter’s authors.
‘These levies would bolster the health of families across the UK through reformulation leading to reduced sugar and salt intake, saving the NHS billions of pounds and supporting a healthy workforce. This is a solution that would generate revenue and improve children’s diets and physical health now and into the future.’
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.
‘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.’