Combatting food insecurity for children: the role of Free School Meals and the National Food Strategy

The first part of the two-part National Food Strategy (NFS) was published at the end of July and has made several recommendations on behalf of young people in England. Henry Dimbleby, the author of the strategy states in the report that these recommendations have been made to “ensure a generation of our most disadvantaged children do not get left behind.”

He adds that “eating well in childhood is the very foundation stone of equality of opportunity. It is essential for both physical and mental growth. A poorly nourished child will struggle to concentrate at school. An obese child is extremely likely to become an obese adult, with the lifetime of health problems that entails.”

The report lays out four key recommendations to protect disadvantaged children and stresses their urgency in a post-pandemic landscape that is likely to consist of high unemployment and as such lack of access to food.

  1. Expand eligibility for the Free School Meal (FSM) scheme to include every child (up to the age of 16) from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits)

The first recommendation would see roughly 1.5 million more seven to 16-year-olds receiving FSM, which would take the number of children receiving free school meals up to 2.6 million. This would ensure these children had access to at least one nutritious meal a day.

Nutritional food is often more expensive than junk food, which can lead to children being sent to school with a lunch that has very little nutritional value. This, in turn affects their ability and focus. As such, extending FSM eligibility does not just provide children with access to food, but to nutritious food which will help their entire learning experience, setting them up for a better future.

  1. Extend the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to all areas in England, so that summer holiday support is available to all children in receipt of Free School Meals

The Holiday Activity and Food Programme is a wonderful initiative that helps ensure disadvantaged children have access to holiday activities, school breakfasts and meals throughout the holidays. The programme helped 50,000 children last year, in this proposed expansion it would reach around 1.1 million more.

Food insecurity is a deep-rooted problem. In the summer holidays of 2018 the Trussell Trust sent out 87,496 food parcels to children in the UK – a 20 per cent rise on the year before. The situation is likely to become more dire as we emerge from the pandemic, with a severe economic downturn. The expansion of the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to over a million more children would go a long way towards ensuring young people do not have to go hungry next year.

  1. Increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 per week, and expand the scheme to every pregnant woman and to all households with children under four where a parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefits

Healthy Start vouchers, currently worth £3.10, provide vouchers for milk, plain fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables, infant formula milk and access to free vitamins. The expansion of this programme and rise in the value of the voucher would provide expectant mothers and households with children under four with more fresh and nutritious food.

As mentioned before, fresh and nutritious food is something many cannot afford or have limited access to, yet it plays a critical role in the development of children. If the recommendations were taken on board this would ensure young children and pregnant women had improved access to the food and vitamins they need for their sustained health.

  1. Extend the work of the Food to the Vulnerable Ministerial Task Force for a further 12 months up until July 2021. It should collect, assess and monitor data on the number of people suffering from food insecurity at any time, and agree cross-departmental actions, where necessary, to support those who cannot access or afford food.

Whilst this is not directly aimed at children, it does affect them. Extending the work of the Food to the Vulnerable Ministerial Task Force and carefully monitoring the data around those suffering food insecurity, will help families and children who are living in food poverty.

The pandemic is likely to affect the country for a long time to come, especially financially. Therefore, by extending this programme for at least a year, the Government can be assured that those most in need are not going hungry, and children are not left without access to food at home.

The NFS recommendations laid out for young people and families would help safeguard those most vulnerable from the dangers of food poverty and insecurity, it would also ensure access to adequate food that supports development in young people and helps prevent future health problem.

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