A new study has revealed that since schools shut down in March there has been a significant decrease in the amount of fruit and veg consumed by pupils who would have received free school meals, while intake of sugary drinks and snacks has rocketed.
The report – The Free School Meal Voucher Scheme: What are children actually eating and drinking? – conducted by Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Lab found that the 9-12-year-olds surveyed ate an average of just over two portions of vegetables per day and just over one portion of fruit per day before school closures.
However, over the three-day reporting period after lockdown, 55% of the children hadn’t eaten any fresh vegetables – with the mean intake dropping to an average of half a portion per day – and 45% of kids hadn’t consumed any fruit at all, with the rest eating an average of only half a portion per day.
There was however a four-fold increase in the amount of sugar-sweetened drinks consumed, and a considerable rise in the amount of crisps, chocolates and sweets being eaten. Intake of unhealthy snacks rose from an average of one over the three days when the children were at school to six portions across three days at home during lockdown.
In the immediate term, we urge the UK Government to rethink school summer holiday provision to ensure that all children from low income households are provided with the opportunity to access healthy food, cultural, social and physical activities during the upcoming holiday period
And while around 25% of respondents said they’d missed at least one meal a day prior to lockdown – usually breakfast – this increased to 35% afterwards.
Calling the findings ‘pretty horrific reading’, Professor Greta Defeyter, Director of the Healthy Living Lab, is calling for a school meal service and breakfast club programme to be made available to all children to ensure equal access to a healthy diet. “Our report highlights the importance of free school meal provision, and the importance of access to healthy, nutritious food in every community,” she says. “We believe that all children have the right to access nutritious healthy food within their community and school.
“In the immediate term, we urge the UK Government to rethink school summer holiday provision to ensure that all children from low income households are provided with the opportunity to access healthy food, cultural, social and physical activities during the upcoming holiday period.”
Baroness Boycott, Chair of the charity Feeding Britain, adds: “The social and economic consequences of coronavirus are exposing millions of people in our country to hunger and malnutrition. As these preliminary findings show, we need a seamless year-round programme of nutritious meals for all children which incorporates school breakfasts and dinners, as well as a continuation of that service, alongside enriching activities, during the holiday periods. The automatic registration of all eligible families for Healthy Start vouchers – the take-up of which is pitifully low – would also increase the flow of fresh fruit and vegetables to young children.”