“Food Swamps” in deprived areas of the UK are making it increasingly difficult for children to access healthy food, according to a new global Unicef report.
The influence of high-calorie, low-nutrient junk food outlets dominating the retail food environment has been highlighted in the report, entitled The State of the World’s Children 2019.
The study, which looks at children’s nutrition worldwide, stresses that one in three school-leavers are overweight or obese in the UK, with children from poor areas twice as likely to be obese.
It says: “England’s poorest areas are fast-food hotspots, with five times more outlets than in the most affluent areas.
“Children from poorer areas are disproportionately exposed to takeaways selling fried chicken, burgers and pizzas, and poorer areas also have more visible advertising for unhealthy foods than wealthier areas.
“The UK food retail environment encourages unhealthy foods consumption.”
And it adds: “At the same time, nearly two million children in England live in food poverty, and less than one fifth of five-to 15-year-olds eat five portions of fruits and vegetables a day.
“In an affluent city like London, almost one in 10 children reports going to bed hungry.”
But the report, published on Tuesday, also concludes: “Even though much remains to be done to tackle childhood obesity, the UK is paving the way to ensure that all children grow up in a healthy food environment.”
It points to advances in the UK, including the introduction of the sugar tax and ongoing consultation on new legislation to ban unhealthy foods at areas like checkouts as well as price promotions.
The report also highlights the setting up of the Healthy Start Scheme to provide fruit and vegetable vouchers to low-income families with young children.
Liam Sollis, Head of Policy at Unicef UK said: “The UK faces the challenge of confronting ‘food swamps’, where an abundance of high-calorie, low-nutrient junk food outlets line the streets, while restricting the promotion of unhealthy foods in supermarkets and ensuring that healthy options are affordable and easily accessible to all.
“Every year, the Government’s failure to act means more children being pushed into a life of ill-health through no fault of their own.”
Mr Sollis acknowledged recent progress but said more needs to be done, including establishing healthy food environments in deprived areas and financial disincentives on unhealthy food.
Globally, the Unicef report says one in three children under five worldwide are malnourished, and two in three children under two live on poor diets.
Unicef has urged governments and the food industry to do more tackle malnutrition caused by both undernutrition and childhood obesity.
It warns that problems start at birth, with only 42% of children under six months of age exclusively breastfed.
And the report says that 42% of school-going adolescents in low and middle income countries consume carbonated sugary soft drinks at least once a day and 46% eat fast food at least once a week. Those rates go up to 62% and 49%, respectively, in high-income countries.
Unicef say that 10 times more girls and 12 times more boys between five and 19 are obese today than in 1975.
Henrietta Fore, Unicef’s executive director, said: “Despite all the technological, cultural and social advances of the last few decades, we have lost sight of this most basic fact: If children eat poorly, they live poorly.
“Millions of children subsist on an unhealthy diet because they simply do not have a better choice.”
Unicef says it wants to see “proven legislation”, such as sugar taxes, to reduce demand for unhealthy foods, as well as incentivising food suppliers to provide healthy, affordable foods.
A Department of Health and Social Care Spokesperson said: “As this report points out, we have already taken action to help families make healthier choices.
“Our world leading childhood obesity programme includes measures that will make a difference to everyone – the soft drinks industry levy has already seen the sugar content of subjected drinks decrease by 28.8% and has funded school sports across the country.
“Our prevention green paper has also set out a series of new measures, including consulting on ways to implement clearer labelling on products.’’