Coronavirus: Concern that children on free school meals are missing out on on healthy food

Annette Rawstrone
Monday, June 8, 2020

Children on free school meals are eating 'significantly' less fruit and vegetables since the lockdown and are missing meals, a study has found.

Children are eating 'substantially' more crisps, chocolates and sweets during the lockdown
Children are eating 'substantially' more crisps, chocolates and sweets during the lockdown

Around half of children who received free school meal vouchers are eating significantly less fruit and vegetables since schools closed for lockdown in March, a report by Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Lab has found.

Before school closures children reported eating, on average, just over one portion of fruit per day. During the three-day reporting period during lockdown, almost half of the children (45 per cent) said they had not eaten any fruit, with the remaining children eating an average of half a portion of fruit per day.

The report, ‘The Free School Meal Voucher Scheme: What are children actually eating and drinking?’, found similar results in the children’s responses on the amount of vegetables they had eaten.

More than half of the children (55 per cent) said they had not eaten any fresh vegetables during the three days during lockdown. The mean vegetable intake dropped from just over two portions per day when children were attending school, to an average of half a portion per day at home.

Children have also been missing more meals during lockdown. Approximately 25 per cent said they had skipped at least one meal a day prior to schools closing – usually their breakfast – and this increased to 35 per cent following lockdown.

However, a four-fold increase was reported in the amount of sugar-sweetened drinks consumed, together with a substantial rise in the amount of crisps, chocolates and sweets being eaten. Children’s consumption of unhealthy snacks increased from an average of one over the three days when they were attending school to six portions across three days at home during lockdown.

Although the Department for Education implemented a shopping voucher scheme worth £15 per child per week in England to provide support for those children who would normally receive free school meals, many parents and schools reported problems with the scheme. The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland chose to introduce alternative schemes.

Healthy Living Lab director Professor Greta Defeyter welcomes the fact that more supermarket chains are now included in the voucher scheme but she said the report’s preliminary findings highlight ‘wider, systematic, societal failure’ and ‘make for pretty horrific reading’. 

She added, ‘As a nation our shopping habits have changed, with an increase in shopping online and shopping locally. However, if a parent doesn’t have internet access or has a low data allowance, can’t afford the minimum shop for free delivery, or lives in a “food desert” that is populated with fast food takeaways then it is hardly surprising that, in the absence of free school breakfasts and free school lunches, some children’s overall dietary intake has changed.’

The Lab, which specialises in issues around the provision of child feeding programmes and holiday hunger, worked with almost 60 nine- to 12-year-olds in London and the North East of England during three consecutive days before and three consecutive days during lockdown to compile the report.

Prof Defeyter believes there is a high probability that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds will be most disadvantaged when the new academic year begins in September. She says the combination of a lack of healthy nutritious food and the educational learning loss experienced due to school closures will disproportionally affect disadvantaged children.

She is calling for a universal school meal service and school breakfast club programme to be made available to all children, to ensure equal access to a healthy diet to promote health, and learning.

‘Our report highlights the importance of free school meal provision, and the importance of access to healthy, nutritious food in every community. We believe that all children have the right to access nutritious healthy food within their community and school,’ Prof Defeyter added.

‘In the immediate term, we urge the UK government to rethink school summer holiday provision to ensure that all children from low-income households are provided with the opportunity to access healthy food, cultural, social and physical activities during the upcoming holiday period.’

 

 

 

 

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