Fresh calls have been made on the government to provide free school meals to all primary school pupils after a survey of school nurses and dentists warned child hunger was leading to a deterioration in children’s health.
As part of a week of action coordinated by the National Education Union’s (NEU) No Child Left Behind campaign, 313 health practitioners, who are either members of the School and Public Health Nurses Association (SAPHNA) or the British Dental Association, were asked about the impact of hunger on children’s health over the past year.
Around two-thirds (65%) of respondents reported that children’s health had gotten worse as a result of hunger and poor nutrition, while almost a third (28%) said children were experiencing an increase in the incidence or severity of health problems to a large extent.
The NEU’s No Child Left Behind campaign is gathering supporters to demand urgent action from the government to eradicate child poverty across the UK.
A week of action raising awareness of the campaign was culminated in a joint open letter being delivered to 10 Downing Street on Thursday. It called on the Westminster Government to follow the example of the Welsh and Scottish governments in extending the provision of free school meals to every child attending primary school in England.
Health practitioners are supporting the move, with 94% of respondents to the survey in favour of it.
‘Hungry children cannot learn,’ said one school nurse. ‘Hungry children feel isolated and ashamed. This can make them disengage and become withdrawn, or be angry and cause disruption. Poor nutrition causes long-term health and social problems and reduces the life chances of the children in our care.’
Almost all of those surveyed (97%) said a standardised daily hot food intake for primary school pupils could improve children’s health outcomes.
When asked how hunger and poor nutrition were impacting on children, more than half of the survey respondents said they had seen children who were putting on weight slower than expected (53%), noted changes in their behaviour (55%), and were experiencing more frequent mental health problems (51%).
More than two-thirds (68%) reported working with children who experience health problems as a result of hunger and poor nutrition more than once a month, with almost one in five (18%) working with children experiencing these issues every single day.
‘With food inflation soaring and in-work poverty on the rise, many families are being pulled into increasingly difficult positions through no fault of their own and children are suffering as a result,’ SAPHNA said. ‘Families across the income distribution are struggling with food costs and having their health impacted.’
There is ‘significant concern that the difficulties children were facing would impact on their education and life chances for years to come’, the association noted.
Sharon White, chief executive of SAPHNA, said: ‘The detailed responses from school nurses demonstrate not only their high level of concern and compassion, but also the significant impact this is having on the focus of their work with an increasing number of hungry children. This should not be happening in the fifth richest county in the world.
‘We trust that, as part of this week of action, that our decision makers listen and act urgently to provide universal free school meals to primary school-aged children. Without this, the downward trajectory of our children’s health outcomes will continue long into adulthood. They need and deserve much better.’
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, added: ‘With 4.2 million children living in poverty, it is incumbent on the government to take action.
‘These findings demonstrate the impact of child poverty on children’s health and paint a worrying picture for their futures.
‘Front line healthcare staff, such as school nurses, dentists and teachers, play a huge role in supporting young people to live the best lives they can, but these findings show that their jobs are becoming increasingly difficult in the face of rising poverty.’
He added: ‘The NEU, along with more than a hundred other organisations signed up to the Free School Meals for All campaign, are calling on the government to introduce free school meals for all children in primary schools. We can no longer afford the costs of inaction and must take action to prevent the health of our children from deteriorating further.’
In February this year, the UK’s leading public health bodies warned 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 government has been approached for a response.