More free school meals needed to tackle food poverty says new report

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Up to 1.5 million more children in England should get free school meals to help tackle a growing crisis of food poverty and unhealthy eating, suggests a landmark new food report that is being billed as the first national food strategy since rationing after the Second World War.

The reports author, the Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby, has said that Covid-19 has highlighted the stark economic, health and nutritional inequalities in the country which are bound to be made worse following the fallout from the pandemic. He warns, “The wave of unemployment now rushing towards us is likely to create a sharp rise in food insecurity and outright hunger.”

He adds, “In the post-lockdown recession, many more families will struggle to feed themselves adequately. A government that is serious about ‘levelling up’ must ensure that all children get the nutrition they need.”

Dimbleby said hundreds of conversations and meetings revealed widespread public support for state intervention to improve diets, adding: “It seems clear that the state has the moral authority to intervene in people’s lives to help them eat better, especially given the terrible costs that diet-related disease imposes on our society.”

The report, commissioned by former environment secretary Michael Gove in 2019 is a wide-ranging examination into the country’s food system, focusing on supermarkets, food banks, the impact of Brexit and nutrition and health.

Dimbleby says that the food system stood up remarkably well to the test that Covid-19 placed on supply, but argues that there is no room for complacency and suggests that the next major test for the supply-chain will come from the climate emergency.

He argues that Brexit offers an opportunity to guarantee farming and animal welfare standards, and recommends that safeguards are put in place to ensure that future trade deals don’t open the UK market to cheap, substandard food. “The deals we make now will shape the food system of the future, affecting everything from the livelihoods of our farmers to animal welfare and climate change. The issue of how to strike trade deals without lowering food standards needs to be addressed now before it is too late,” the report says.

The report makes some recommendations for quick-wins that could really help those struggling the most:

An expansion of free school meals to 1.5 million more 7 to 16-year-olds in households claiming universal credit benefit. This is estimated to cost an extra £670m a year. Only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of a school meal, according to the report.

A nationwide £200m expansion of holiday hunger schemes currently state-funded in 16 local council areas and reaching 50,000 children. Around 3 million children are at risk of hunger during the school holidays, the report says.

An expansion of the Healthy Start fresh fruit, milk and vegetables voucher scheme for pregnant mothers, increasing its value and encouraging supermarkets to supplement the voucher with free fresh produce.

Response to the report has been positive, Tim Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at London’s City University, said: “It’s a thoughtful report which recognises that consumers with unequal information cannot deal with the power of the industry. It’s the beginning of good.”

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