Impact of breakfast on children’s health and educational attainment
The Q&A session started by discussing the international literature on impact of breakfast on children’s cognitive performance, wellbeing and educational attainment. Data on breakfast and academic outcomes mostly comes from the developed world, including UK, the US, and Australia. When reviewed systematically, these data show short term benefits of consuming breakfast on children’s cognitive performance (i.e., memory, learning abilities) on that day in school. The longer-term benefits are less well established and rely on association studies (so cause and effect cannot be established).
Research in undernourished children from countries such as the Peruvian Andes, Jamaica etc., shows that if nutrient deficiencies are corrected there is a positive impact on child health, child cognitive performance and educational performance.
Breakfast and the Free School Meal Provision across the UK
The panel discussed how breakfast is not part of the Free School Meal provision. Programmes such as Magic Breakfast (which with Family Action is part of the National School Breakfast program) have been providing breakfast to about 200,000 children each day across the UK. The Department for Education has awarded a new contract to supply breakfasts to at least 2,500 schools in England between September 2021 and July 2023 to Family Action but the long-term commitment is uncertain.
There are also schemes run by companies like Greggs or Kellogg’s that have certain eligibility requirements. However, corporate social responsibility schemes usually tend to set up a breakfast club and schools then take over responsibility for ongoing provision, which often requires parents to pay. The parents who sign-up to these tend to be those who are at work and need childcare early in the morning rather those who have children experiencing food poverty for whom costs may be too high.
Childhood obesity and long-term health effects
The panel discussed the complexity of the risks associated with childhood obesity. The greatest risk for obese children is becoming obese as teenagers and adults rather than being obese as a child.
There is limited research suggesting that children do not have concerns about obesity itself and do not consider it stigmatising. For children who have grown up in food poverty, obesity is normal and standardised. Their fear of hunger is much greater than their fear of being overweight, which is instead regarded as being healthy. This is common in a lot of poorer societies, where overweight is a very desirable outcome because it is a sign of nutritional security.
However, if a child is obese in adolescence, there’s a very high probability that they will remain obese throughout life. This increases their risk of type 2 diabetes, a disease used to be called ‘an old man’s disease’ that is now occurring in teenagers. Type 2 diabetes in midlife is associated with higher risk of vascular dementia in later life. This can have very serious implications for our aging population.
Body positivity, obesity and language
It was noted that there are two sides of the body positivity movement: one very healthy, focused on self-acceptance, and another one somehow minimising how harmful it is to be obese. Speakers discussed the need of changing the language about obesity, that is currently based on shame and disgust. This is despite overweight now being the new ‘norm’, with two thirds of adults being overweight and one in four obese. People talk about obesity as a problem of poverty and ignorance. But it is a very widespread problem, that is not confined to the poorest families. It is just that for the poorest families it is the hardest to address.
Free School meals auto-enrolment and HAF funding
Auto-enrolment to the Free School Meals was discussed as a potential way to ensure that all children eligible for Free School Meals get registered. However, it was noted that it requires the technology able to deal with data sharing between different departments, which is not without its challenges.
It was highlighted how HAF programmes have been invaluable in communities across England, but they were heavily dependent on the charity sector, and there was no systemisation across the country. In 2020, the Government committed funding towards the HAF programme until the end of this calendar year, but there is no longer-term funding as yet, and no funding for the extension of Free School Meals and Healthy Start. There is a hope that this will be addressed in the comprehensive spending review due later in October. The National Food Strategy (NFS) recommended increased funding to these programmes and recommended a sugar and salt reformulation tax that would lower the economic incentives around junk food alongside creating revenue which can be used to ensure lowest income families can access healthier food.
Speakers stressed the importance of the upcoming spending review in securing funding to measures tackling children’s food insecurity, as well as the role of the upcoming White Paper in response to the National Food Strategy, which is led by Defra. They hope that it will include other departments as well, such as Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care, to ensure a substantial consideration of the NFS recommendations and a set of actions to tackle both food insecurity and dietary inequalities across the UK.
It was also noted how there is a robust evidence base showing that School Breakfast Provision, Free School Meals and HAF programmes have real benefits to children. Creating a What Works Centre for Food might be a solution to help bring policymakers closer to the evidence base.
Role of food knowledge in food insecurity
Starting from an observation that research in Sheffield shows that food insecurity is also linked to the mental and physical capacity to cook (i.e., how to cook with ingredients given through food parcels; being able to stand at the cooker, etc.), the role of food knowledge in food insecurity and the importance of expanding programmes like Take & Make was then discussed.
It was noted that the Take & Make scheme is open to all councils in London, while outside London there are some similar successful schemes. The strength of Take & Make lies in supporting children in their own home, creating habits within the household, confidence and relationships with parents and with family members (rather than just a transference of skills). It was also noted that children feel that better food knowledge would be useful for them and that they are disappointed in the level of education they are receiving at school , which does not cover how to prepare full nutritious meals, for example. Speakers discussed the need to educate children about food in multiple and holistic ways, including gardening clubs, cooking workshops, schools, and schemes like Take and Make that enable young people to engage in those activities in their home.
It was highlighted that including cooking on the national curriculum as a way to address lack of food knowledge had already been proposed a few years ago by Henry Dimbleby, but there is a mixed picture with regards to the extent in which the curriculum is currently implemented in each school. This is the subject of one of the other recommendations in the NFS, which also recommends that schools supply ingredients for the whole class, to help children from low-income families who might struggle to provide ingredients.
It was also noted that food education and cookery are seen as an extra component of education, rather than a vital part of it. Speakers stressed that cooking skills are not particularly patterned socio-economically as there are people with very poor skills in the richest households as well as in the poorest households. However, the effects of poor cooking skills are much greater for people from very low-income households, because they then buy the very cheapest calories, while people from high-income households without cooking skills buy healthier alternatives.
Impact of lifting the £20 Universal Credit on food insecurity
Speakers felt that lifting the £20 Universal Credit will have a significant negative impact on food-insecure children, increasing their stress and anxiety levels. Research discussed in the presentations showed that simply worrying about not having enough food was enough to make children significantly different from their food-secure peers. It was noted that increasing the number of children into that position will negatively impact their mental health.
Speakers stressed the importance of financial security and how a lot of existing interventions represent a ‘cheap sticking plaster’ approach. It was highlighted how there is a tendency to believe that the right interventions involve educating the poor and giving them the right foods to eat as opposed to just giving them enough money to live on. Ensuring financial security, not handing out food, has made the most difference historically.
Role of wide-scale urban farming and/or community gardening in reducing childhood food insecurity and improving health
Speakers noted that community gardening and projects that include growing are incredibly useful for community cohesiveness and generation of social capital. While they do not believe it could impact food insecurity directly (i.e., providing enough food to eat), they are important as they create environments where healthy food is visible.
Others noted that community growing and gardens are excellent strategies, with a positive impact on wellbeing as well as providing some valuable sources of food, but soil quality is an important consideration. Members of the audience discussed how some U.S. cities have used commercial urban agriculture as a strategy to contribute to food access goals. For example, 28 urban farms have a key role in the city of Atlanta’s goal of having 85% of people to live within half a mile of fresh and healthy food by 2022. These farms also sell at half price to people using food stamp support.
Actions for Parliamentarians
The panel shared their view on which actions Parliamentarians can take to tackle the issue discussed in the session. These included:
- Ensuring the Government produces a robust response to the NFS, by submitting questions to the Secretary of State George Eustice MP around the scope of the White Paper and how it will take forward the National Food Strategy recommendations;
- Expressing support for the recommendations around children’s food insecurity in the National Food Strategy, including on extending eligibility for Free School Meals and on increasing the role of food education in the school curriculum;
- Endorsing the School Breakfast Bill to give access to pre-school food for children (and therefore improve their academic outputs later on in life);
- Supporting the implementation of new taxes and their use to fund initiatives for the most vulnerable groups;
- Ensure a statutory youth provision requirement across the whole country for all young people, in order to keep them outside fast food outlets (that often offer them a place to socialise, with free Wi-Fi and power plugs) and provide them with environments where positive food and nutrition can be promoted to all.