Published on 15 July, the National Food Strategy (NFS) calls for a tax to encourage sugar and salt reformulation, an expansion of Free School Meals and a major overhaul of food education as part of a coordinated effort to rethink UK diets and the sustainability of food production.
In his Introduction to the Strategy, lead author Henry Dimbleby makes the case for taking an integrated ‘food systems’ approach, similar to the approach we are taking in our H3 research programme: www.h3.ac.uk
The report makes 14 recommendations to address four key objectives:
- Escape the junk food cycle and protect the NHS
- Reduce diet-related inequality
- Make the best use of our land
- Create a long-term shift in our food culture
Welcoming the report and its coordinated food systems approach, researchers from the H3 consortium reflect on different aspects of the Strategy asking how it might contribute to a transformation of the UK food system and achieve the twin goals of improving public health and environmental sustainability.
The first National Food Strategy (NFS) report recommended expanding the eligibility for the Free School Meal (FSM) scheme to include every child (up to the age of 16) from a household where a parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit, (or equivalent benefits). This was not implemented by the Government. The NFS urges FSM provision as a priority, alongside other initiatives such as the Holiday Activities and Food programme, and the Healthy Start scheme. The rollout of Universal Credit led to a huge increase in FSM eligibility. Food insecurity has been exacerbated by the Covid 19 pandemic. Currently, many families who are “just managing” (often those experiencing in-work poverty) do not qualify for FSMs. If these families have more than one child, they face an average cost of £2.30 per child per day for school meals. Many families in this “poverty trap” resort to packed lunches which are of variable and often inferior nutritional quality1. The NFS proposes, “…increasing the earnings threshold for FSMs to £20,000 before benefits…” and calculates this would ensure that 70% of children in households with “low food security” and 82% with “very low food security” (as defined by the Government) – would be eligible for FSMs.
More than 20% of children eligible for FSMs don’t take them. The reasons for this lack of uptake are not clear, but likely to include: stigma; embarrassment; lack of palatable/quality food options; and confusion resulting from the transition from universal infant FSMs to means-tested FSMs in subsequent school years, which many parents fail to apply for. Implementing FSMs in a way which removes stigma is therefore important; the NFS recommends automatic enrolment for all eligible children. The School Food Standards determine that those in receipt of FSM must have a balanced meal but this is not the only meal offered, and their paying peers may choose other meals – the choice – or lack of it – exposes the FSM recipient amongst their peers.
The NFS pays less attention to breakfast and its importance for children and young people. Whilst Recommendation 4 recognises that “Children with empty stomachs struggle at school: they find it hard to concentrate, their behaviour deteriorates, and they are more likely to be disruptive in class” (p151), it does not consider that most of the core school curriculum is taught before lunch. Therefore, breakfast is essential for effective learning. Habitual breakfast consumption is associated both with better academic outcomes (Adolphus et al 2013; 2019), and in–class behaviour (Adolphus 2013). The quality of the breakfast is also important, for overall dietary quality and health. Data suggests that many school breakfasts do not comply with School Foods Standards (Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, 2020) but the NFS falls short of recommending universal free school breakfasts meeting these standards as proposed in Emma Lewell-Buck’s private member’s bill.
The stress and cognitive overload of poverty discussed in the NFS is clear at a household level (see also: https://globalfoodleeds.medium.com/uk-food-insecurity-in-the-21st-century-21c0dca14a91). The impact on children growing up in these food-restricted households confers a lifelong disadvantage, which manifests in anxiety about food and poorer psychological well being than their food secure classmates (based on data collected in a Shropshire County Council survey in collaboration with University of Leeds, 2021). It is therefore imperative that we level the playing field for these children by providing a universal school breakfast programme which encourages school attendance and ensures that no child is too hungry to learn. This ultimately will impact on the academic, social and psychological outcomes for our children and young people.
In Work Package 5 of the H3 project, we will work in partnership with Bagel Nash to reformulate their Magic Bagel to increase the fibre content. The Magic Bagel is a special-recipe bagel for school food provision made with 50:50 wholemeal/white flour bagel fortified with vitamin D. Magic Breakfast will deliver these healthy higher fibre breakfasts to children from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds. Key to acceptance and continued uptake of these new foods is taste and repeated exposure, and we will assess this in a longitudinal study in local schools. Our approach also aligns with the NFS recommendation to increase fibre intake across the population. A health by stealth approach seems the best way to do this, starting with children where we can “educate” their palates by exposure and encourage consumption of increased fibre foods via school food provision. Another aspect of WP5 will examine ways to increase fibre intake in adults from low SES backgrounds via community cooking classes delivered by Cracking Good Food. This aligns with the NFS recommendation of trialling a “Community Eatwell” programme to provide targeted healthy eating support for people on low incomes; cooking lessons in community kitchens are also proposed as a key route of delivery in the NFS. These workshops aim to empower adults to develop some of the skills that Dimbleby seeks to bring back for school pupils via the reintroduction of food into the curriculum, because we agree that successful dietary change need less “preaching about diet” and more efforts to “impart… kitchen skills and expand… palates” (p47).
- Evans CEL, Melia KE, Rippin HL, Hancock N, Cade J. 2020. A repeated cross-sectional survey assessing changes in diet and nutrient quality of English primary school children’s packed lunches between 2006 and 2016. BMJ Open. 10.1
- Adolphus, K., Lawton, C. L., & Dye, L. (2019) Associations Between Habitual School-Day Breakfast Consumption Frequency and Academic Performance in British Adolescents Frontiers in Public Health7, 283 doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2019.00283
- Adolphus, K., Lawton, C. L., & Dye, L. (2015) The relationship between habitual breakfast consumption frequency and academic performance in British adolescents. Frontiers in Public Health, 3, doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2015.00068.