Doctors and nurses have called for a major expansion of free school meals to combat the growing risk of malnutrition, obesity and other health conditions affecting children in low-income families hit by the cost of living crisis.
A letter signed by scores of clinicians and health experts said NHS professionals were seeing the impact of hunger and poor nutrition in their work every day following a recent doubling in food insecurity across the UK.
Extending free school meals would help to address growing evidence of clinical problems among a cohort of children living in poverty who were going hungry, missing out on healthy food and not eating regularly, the letter said.
Nearly 10 million adults and 4 million children in the UK experienced food insecurity in September as the cost of living crisis deepened, according to the Food Foundation. Millions reported skipping meals or going a whole day without eating, and half said they had cut down on fruit and vegetables.
One signatory, Martin Godfrey, a GP in south London, said he increasingly saw malnourished children. “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.”
Another signatory, Jonathan Tomlinson, a GP in Hoxton, east London, said inadequate nutrition was manifesting as fatigue, recurrent infection and behavioural problems in youngsters. “One thing I do notice is that most children seem to have iron, folate and vitamin D deficiency and when I ask them, they don’t eat anything green.”
Dr Helen Stewart, a paediatrician, said: “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.”
The letter urges ministers to extend free school meals to an extra 800,000 children on universal credit whose families are in poverty and unable to meet the cost of an adequate lunch but under current criteria are deemed not vulnerable enough to qualify for free meal provision.
Separately, Richard Walker, the managing director of the supermarket chain Iceland, said on Wednesday he wanted to see free school meals provision expanded “as a critical priority” to help combat rising food insecurity.
Walker, who sits on the prime minister’s business council and has ambitions to become a Tory MP, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that families with children were most at risk of going hungry and skipping meals.
“If our country is to succeed long term, we have got to make sure we have a healthy, focused, happy, engaged school population who have decent prospects, and that has to include vulnerable kids,” he said.
In England, all infant schoolchildren are entitled to free school meals from reception to year 2, but beyond that only children whose parents earn less than £7,400 a year are eligible. Both the Welsh and Scottish governments are committed to rolling out free school meals to all primary school pupils.
Some schools have described pupil hunger as the biggest single challenge they face this winter, with some having dipped into emergency cash reserves to feed pupils ineligible for free school meals. Teachers have told of desperate children stealing food from fellow students, eating rubbers, and even “pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said:“We have expanded access to free school meals more than any other government in recent decades, which currently reach 1.9 million children. We are also investing up to £24m in our National School Breakfast Programme, which provides free breakfasts to children in schools in disadvantaged areas.”