Government attacked for ignoring expert advice on nutrition in food parcels

Defra and Public Health England denied responsibility for meals sent to children and vulnerable adults during the pandemic

The government has been accused of a “shocking” disregard for the basic nutrition of the most vulnerable members of society during the pandemic by a group of leading food policy academics.

A letter written by Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University, was sent early in the Covid-19 crisis to George Eustice, secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, and Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England.

It called for the creation of an expert committee on food and nutrition to oversee the contents of food packages sent to 1.5 million people required to shield during the pandemic and to the 1.3 million children eligible for free school meals. The letter was co-signed by Erik Millstone, emeritus professor of science policy at the University of Sussex, and Terry Marsden of Cardiff University. They proposed a committee that would mirror the work of Sage, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which has informed government policy throughout the crisis.

In its response Defra said that PHE “is responsible for the health of the public and the effect of nutrition on our immune system”. In turn, PHE replied that the matters raised were “for ministers”. In effect, neither arm of government believes itself responsible for overseeing nutrition.

Lang described the response as “shocking”. “It shows a troubling failure to put nutrition right at the heart of policy. It’s stupid and shows a poor understanding of how inequalities get accentuated in a crisis,” he said.

Many of those receiving the free food packages, provided by food service companies Brakes and Bidfood, noted that while they contained fresh fruit and vegetables, they were heavy on simple carbohydrates and low in protein. As schools closed and children eligible for free school meals were given food service company parcels, concerns were also raised about their contents.

Peter Overton, a primary school head teacher in Bristol, posted a picture of one to Twitter, describing it as “shameful”. The bulk of it was crisps, chocolate biscuits, a loaf of cheap bread, and a block of fat marked for cooking only.

Earlier this month Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Lab reported a massive decrease in fruit and vegetable intake among pupils eligible for free school meals. Just over half of the children studied said they had eaten no fruit or vegetables in a three-day period after the introduction of lockdown.

Funding for free school meals is now through a weekly £15 voucher per child, which can be spent at nominated retailers. Last week a campaign by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford forced the government to extend the policy over the summer holiday. While this U-turn was welcomed by child poverty campaigners, there is mounting concern about the nutritional value of the food being eaten by the poorest families.

“There has been a real danger that without some sort of oversight we lose focus on basic nutrition,” said Naomi Duncan, chief executive of Chefs in Schools, a charity working to improve school meals, which is supporting 850 families during the crisis. “The voucher scheme is a financial solution, not a nutritional solution. There’s been a 30-year struggle to get better nutrition at the heart of school food provision and there is a risk of that being lost,” she said.

In its response to Lang, Defra argued that “leading supermarkets are working to ensure people have the food and products they need”. Lang describes this as the key to the problem. “It’s the leave-it-to-Tesco approach,” he said. “It shows the weakness of Public Health England.”

In a statement PHE said that any decisions about establishing an advisory committee on nutrition “would be for ministers to take”. Defra declined to comment.

• Read From panic buying to food banks: how Britain fed itself in the first phase of cornoavirus in today’s OFM.


Jay Rayner

The GuardianTramp

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