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Doctors & nurses call on Government to expand free school meals

Leaders of health and medical organisations representing over 150,000 doctors and medical students, and over half a million nurses, midwives, dieticians and health support staff have added their voices to the growing pressure on Government to urgently expand free school meals to 800,000 more children in England.

A young girl holding a plate of food in the school canteen. Credit: Monkey Business Images | Shutterstock

A young girl holding a plate of food in the school canteen. Credit: Monkey Business Images | Shutterstock

 

In a letter sent on 3 December to the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and the Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan, the medical and health organisations say:

"We urge the UK Government to act now to protect the health of the nation’s children by expanding the Free School Meals scheme to all children in desperate need to guarantee them a hot, nutritious meal at school, for their health, the economy and the NHS."

Four million children now live in households affected by food poverty, according to the latest data from the Food Foundation, whilst analysis from Child Poverty Action Group indicates around 800,000 children in families living in poverty are still not eligible for free school meals. The devasting impact on children is glaringly apparent to those working in the health sector: ‘Every day, healthcare professionals see the impact of hunger and malnutrition in their work,’ say the group. 'Many of these children have to skip lunch completely or rely on cheap, unhealthy food that is damaging to their long-term health.' Signatories to the letter also include medical TV personalities Dr Adam Kay, Dr Alex George and Dr Chris van Tulleken, as well as health visitors and academics. 

The #FeedtheFuture campaign is calling for an urgent uplift in the current threshold for eligibility to all children in families in receipt of Universal Credit, as the first step towards a policy of universal meal provision for all children in state schools. The letter concludes by saying:

"We believe all children in England should be guaranteed access to the food they need to lead healthy lives." 

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The group responsible for the letter which includes the British Medical Association and leaders of the medical and nursing Royal Colleges, also highlights a recent report commissioned by Impact on Urban Health from the analysts PWC, which estimated that expanding free school meals to primary school children would benefit Britain’s faltering economy with an £8.9 million annual boost in improved productivity and health. 

 

Dr. Chris Van Tulleken, Academic and BBC broadcaster, said:

"It's an avoidable tragedy that up to 800,000 kids in poverty are sitting in classrooms all over the country too hungry to learn. Ensuring that all children have access to healthy nutritious food is the most basic function of any government."

Dr Martin Godfrey, a GP in South London, said:

"GPs in central London are increasingly seeing children who are malnourished. In my borough, Lambeth, over 40% of children live in poverty and 20% of children have gone to bed hungry due to lack of food at home.  We are seeing thin, pale children who lack the energy of a normal child. There isn't much clinically we can do to help other than signpost parents to people and places that can. We all need to do more right now. Extending access to free school meals would make a huge difference."

Dr Helen Stewart, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) Officer for Health Improvement said:

"RCPCH stands alongside the Feed the Future campaign in urging the UK Government to expand the Free School Meals scheme to all children in desperate need to guarantee them a hot, nutritious meal at school, for their health, their education, the economy and the NHS. As a paediatrician I’ve seen first-hand how essential good nutrition is during the critical period of rapid growth and development that is childhood. We are seeing the impacts of poor nutrition every day, with both poor growth of deprived babies and children on the one hand, and rising child obesity on the other. Teachers are telling us about seeing hungry children in school and the impact on their wellbeing and learning.  Many parents have no option but to buy cheaper lower quality and less nutritious food in order to feed their children and pay their bills. I believe we have a moral responsibility to help these families and to ensure that all children have enough to eat."

Professor David Strain, chair of the BMA board of science, said:

“Doctors know how important a healthy, nutritious school meal can be. With the cost of living rising, more and more children are threatened with food poverty, which can mean more malnutrition and more obesity as families turn to cheaper and less healthy options. That means more children at risk of type 2 diabetes, poor mental health, and weakened immune systems. Childhood obesity also generates changes in brain chemistry that make weight loss in later life much more difficult, making the problems worse in the long term. That means more long-term pressure on an NHS that just can’t take it. The new prime minister has said he won’t leave the next generation ‘with debts to settle that we are too weak to pay ourselves’. Refusing to extend free school meals would leave a health debt that doctors will be dealing with for years to come."

Dr Jennifer Dixon, Chief Executive of The Health Foundation said:

"The cost-of-living crisis is putting huge financial strain on households across the country, with damaging consequences for the nation’s health now and in the future. A risk is that many more children, particularly in deprived areas, will miss out on nutritious food or simply go hungry. Expanding the free school meals initiative is an intervention now to help many families up and down the country, and could have long term benefits to future health and prosperity. Government can and must act to prevent the cost of living crisis becoming a health emergency.”

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Published 3 Nov 2022

Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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