The government should dramatically increase the number of children eligible for free school meals to address the “slow-motion disaster of the British diet”, according to a major review.
The first part of the National Food Strategy, carried out for ministers by Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby, says the coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a “miserable” legacy of rising unemployment, poverty and hunger.
And it warns that this will only compound a “medical emergency” that sees poor diet responsible for one in seven deaths in the UK – far more than are killed by traffic accidents and almost as many as are killed by smoking.
In a bid to tackle the problem for disadvantaged children, the report demands a major expansion of the government’s existing free school meals scheme.
The review says every child up to the age of 16 from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or other equivalent benefits should be able to access free school meals.
Such a move would cover another 1.5 million children in England – and it should, the strategy says, come alongside a boost to summer holiday food support for the same kids.
Ministers are also urged to up the value of the Healthy Start vouchers scheme, which allows pregnant women or those with a young child to get a £3.10 weekly voucher to pay for milk, fruit and vegetables and vitamins.
The report’s authors say the value of vouchers should rise to £4.25 per week, with the scheme expanded to cover every pregnant woman and to all households with children under four where a parent or guardian gets Universal Credit or other equivalent benefits.
And ministers are told to extend the Food and Essential Supplies to the Vulnerable Task Force, which was set up in the wake of Covid-19, for another 12 months to carry out a major review of the number of people facing food insecurity.
“One of the miserable legacies of Covid-19 is likely to be a dramatic increase in unemployment and poverty, and therefore hunger,” Dimbleby said.
“The effects of hunger on young bodies (and minds) are serious and long-lasting, and exacerbate social inequalities.
“The government must move quickly to shore up the diets of the most deprived children using existing, proven mechanisms.”
He added: “Diet-related illness is one of the top three risk factors for dying of Covid-19. This has given a new urgency to the slow-motion disaster of the British diet.”
Environment secretary George Eustice said the country’s food supply chain had “worked around the clock” during the pandemic.
The government had, he said, “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.
The report also urges the government to open itself up to more scrutiny on food standards as it thrashes out post-Brexit trade deals.
The review says there is “justifiable concern about opening up our markets to cheaper, low-standard imports which would undercut our own producers and make a nonsense of our progressive farming policies”.
But it warns that “blanket legislation” requiring other countries to meet British food standards would making signing any deals “nigh-on impossible” – and instead says ministers should agree to cut tariffs in new deals only when products meet British requirements.
Instead, the government says verification programmes should be used “so that producers wishing to sell into the UK market can, and must, prove they meet these minimum standards”.
“At a minimum, these certification schemes should cover animal welfare concerns and environmental and climate concerns where the impact of particular goods are severe (for example, beef reared on land recently cleared of rainforest).
“The core standards should be defined by the newly formed Trade and Agriculture Commission.”
Ministers should then commit to publishing an independent report on any proposed trade agreement, with the report saying decisions subject to scrutiny “are likely to be better decisions”.
“It is important that government decisions – especially those with such profound consequences as new trade deals – should be properly scrutinised,” the review says.
Food security minister appointment 'essential'
The review was unveiled as a separate study by MPs on the Environment Committee warned that the use of food banks in Britain had almost doubled during lockdown, “with a significant spike in demand from people with children”.
The cross-party group is calling on the government to appoint a dedicated minister for food security — and consider whether a ‘right to food’ should be enshrined in law.
Chairman Neil Parish said: "The lockdown may have eased, but problems with food security are far from over. Food banks and other food redistribution organisations have reacted heroically to a shocking spike in demand for food aid, but this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.
"It is therefore essential that the government appoints a new minister for food security who will stop this issue falling between the cracks.”
Matt Honeycombe-Foster is acting editor of CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this article first appeared.