Free school meals programme expansion needed to avert 'slow-motion disaster' in wake of Covid

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Rebecca Barry

A huge expansion in the number of children been given free school meals is needed to avert a "slow-motion disaster" in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, a new report has said.

The National Food Strategy, led by Leon restaurant founder Henry Dimbleby, said urgent government action is needed in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic as it warned poorer children risk being “left behind”.

The review called for a further 1.5 million children to be brought into the free school meals programme, while poorer youngsters should also be fed during the school holidays.

“One of the miserable legacies of Covid-19 is likely to be a dramatic increase in unemployment and poverty, and therefore hunger," the report said.

“The effects of hunger on young bodies (and minds) are serious and long-lasting, and exacerbate social inequalities.”

The report also called out “misleading packaging” and accuses the food industry of “clothing itself, and its products in false virtue”, with Marks & Spencer's Percy Pig sweets being singled out for particular criticism.

Marcus Rashford forced the government to do a u-turn on its free school meals policy Credit: PA

The study proposes an expansion of free school meals to every child where a parent is receiving Universal Credit, adding: “Children who are hungry at school struggle to concentrate, perform poorly, and have worse attendance records.”

At present, only children from households earning less than £7,400 before benefits are eligible.

Expanding the programme could reach an additional 1.5 million seven to 16-year-olds at a cost of £670 million a year.

The report also calls for an expansion of the holiday activity and food programme to all areas in England, reaching an extra 1.1 million children at a cost of £200 million a year.

And it urges an increase in the value of Healthy Start vouchers from £3.10 per week to £4.25 and the expansion of the scheme to pregnant woman and households in receipt of Universal Credit with children under four.

The vouchers can be spent on vitamins, fruit, vegetables and milk, and the recommendation would mean an extra 290,000 pregnant women and under-fours would benefit, the study said.

Mr Dimbleby said the chief executives of Waitrose and the Co-Op have already agreed to supplement the vouchers with extra free fruit and vegetables.

He welcomed the government’s obesity strategy, released on Monday, but said some firms need to look at their actions when it comes to creating foods that appeal to children.

Vouchers are being sent to the families of children eligible for free school meals Credit: Anthony Devlin/PA

Mr Dimbleby attacked Marks & Spencer over its Percy Pig sweets, saying they are marketed on the front as containing all natural fruit juice and are placed “right by your kids’ little fingers”.

And yet, he said, the first four ingredients listed are forms of sugar such as fructose syrup and glucose-fructose syrup.

“I just think that is not right,” he told reporters during a press briefing.

“I think that is genuinely misleading.

“And actually, when you look at the food world, the reason I pick M&S is because they have integrity as one of their values, but it is rampant in the food world – you know, low fat (food) which is actually high in sugar, or free from this and that."

He also criticised Innocent's Juicy Water for boasting of "no added sugar", while "omitting" to mention the eight teaspoons-worth of natural sugars from grapes and pears.

The study further urged the government to only cut tariffs on products which meet the UK’s “core standards”.

This would be achieved through “verification programmes”, enabling American farmers to sell non-hormone-treated meat to the UK, for example.

Certification schemes should also be extended where the environmental impact is severe; for example, maintaining tariffs on beef reared on land recently cleared of rainforest, the study said.

Children eating school meals in North Lanarkshire Credit: Jacqui Bradley/PA

Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health from the University of Oxford, who worked on the report, said: “A nutritionally poor-quality diet is the leading risk factor for ill-health in the UK, yet we do not treat it with the same seriousness afforded to other risk factors. That has to change.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call that obesity in particular increases the risk of suffering serious complications from the virus, but a poor diet also increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

“This report makes clear the gravity of the situation and the stark inequalities that are evident across the food system.”

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the entire food supply chain had “worked around the clock” during the pandemic, while “Government has invested record levels to support the most vulnerable in our society”.

“But we know there is more to do, and we will carefully consider this independent report and its recommendations as we emerge from the pandemic and build a stronger food system for the future,” he added.