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Children in school uniforms having lunch.

Cost-of-Living Crisis: Hungry for Change

12 Apr 2023 | Jill Muirie

Good nutrition is vital for healthy growth and development, and of course healthy living for those already grown. Indeed, access to adequate amounts of nutritious food is recognised by the UN as a human right. Yet, all the current evidence is indicating that high, and dramatically increasing, numbers of people in the UK are effectively being denied this right.

The number of emergency food aid packs being distributed in the UK by the Trussell Trust, as well as the number of independent food banks, has been on the rise for over ten years. While COVID-19 exacerbated demand for help to access enough food, the Food Foundation's food insecurity tracker shows that food insecurity levels are higher now than at the peak of the pandemic, when, in fact, food insecurity increased sharply. The Resolution Foundation estimates that food insecurity now is more than three times the pre-pandemic level. The Foundation also highlights the uneven impacts: those with a disability or health condition, those from some minority ethnic communities, lone parents, and families with three or more children, are much less likely to be able to afford adequate food.

We also know that when money is tight, it becomes harder to afford a healthy diet. A total of 38% - almost 4 out of every 10 – of P5-S6 students recently reported that they sometimes go to bed or to school hungry (rising to 43% in the 20% most deprived areas). So, in order to feed empty tummies, households are often forced to turn to a cheaper diet, which tends to be higher in salt, fat and sugar and lower in fruit and vegetables.

In such circumstances, school meals play an important role in nourishing children so they can learn, grow, and develop to their full potential. In recognition of this, in Scotland, school meals are universally free for children in primaries 1 to 5, with young people in P6 to S6 eligible if their family receives certain benefits. However, many of those eligible do not take up the service (with stigmatisation perceived by many to be a factor), and several of those who are not eligible struggle to be able to pay – and have either gone hungry or incurred debts.

The most recent SG Healthy Living Survey (Feb, 2022) reports that 36.2% of P1-5 students, 44% of eligible P6 and P7s and 45% of eligible secondary school students did not take up their free school meal. At £1.90 per day (or £2 for secondary students) this equates to losing £9.50 (or £10) per week per child – although it probably costs more for packed lunches or food from local convenience shops, and it is unlikely that these provide the quantity and range available in school meals (soup, bread, main dish, yoghurt, fruit and milk).

School meals often take a bashing; criticised as poor quality and with a reputation for being unpalatable. Yet, in Scotland, we have very clear and strict nutritional regulations which school meals must meet. Furthermore, in many local authorities, including Glasgow, the school meals service is accredited as a Bronze Food for Life Served Here provider, which means that, for example, more than 75% of meals are freshly prepared and seasonal and local ingredients are used where possible. In fact, Glasgow City Council, which serves upwards of 34,000 school meals per day, won a prestigious award for its school meals just last year.

Recent GCPH blogs in our ‘cost-of-living crisis’ series have highlighted the unequal impact on income, health, and wellbeing, with the most vulnerable in society continuing to be the hardest hit, and the additional burden that low uptake of benefits causes, particularly in the context of falling real incomes.

In his blog, Pete Seaman highlighted three important areas of action that GCPH evidence indicates are needed to address the underlying determinants of inequality and support a fairer and healthier society and economy. These are:

1. Immediate mitigation, meaning shorter term help to offset potential harms and make people's circumstances more manageable, including ensuring people get the benefits they are entitled to, or easier access to food and warmth

2. Build longer-term capacity for health in communities, the economy and the places people live and work by, for instance, changing the way that services are planned and delivered to impact positively on health and health inequalities

3. Include the knowledge and expertise of service users and communities in the design and delivery of services and also decisions around investments, and how they are made.

Given the importance of good food for health, and the future costs to society of neglecting this, then immediate mitigation of food insecurity, particularly for children, must be a priority. This should include maximising uptake of free school meals as part of the approach, as well as improving uptake of vouchers such as Best Start Foods, which help pregnant women or those with a child under 3 years to buy nutritious foods like milk or fruit and other welfare benefits. We quickly need to understand how to increase uptake and put into practice effective means to ensure this happens.

To build longer-term, sustainable capacity for health, we must work together to build a stronger local food economy that makes it both easier and cheaper for everyone to buy good, nourishing food wherever they live and whether or not they have access to a car. We also need more local providers, so that the money we spend on food benefits our local economy rather than big, ‘extractive’ corporations (including leading supermarkets) and their shareholders.

Finally, we must better support, develop and invest in the community organisations that do such important work in providing opportunities for growing, cooking, and sharing good food within their communities. These organisations provide invaluable support to address local needs in challenging circumstances but are too often underfunded, undervalued, and reliant on goodwill, particularly in the difficult current economic times.

Action to build fairer, healthier and more sustainable food systems, like the Glasgow City Food Plan and the Sustainable Food Places approach, will help with these three important areas of action, as will the Scottish Parliament’s soon-to-be-implemented Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022.

GCPH continues to highlight and evidence the need for national – especially UK-level – welfare and economic policy interventions to address the growing income and wealth inequalities that are increasing poverty and driving health inequities. At the same time, it is a particular priority for GCPH to emphasise the need for very urgent action now to mitigate the impacts of the current context on vulnerable people. The fact is that these impacts are compounding already deplorable trends in health and health inequalities which predate the pandemic and the current crisis. Food is of particular importance in terms of health, wellbeing, growth and development of children, dignity, and quality of life. And right now, far too many are finding it far too hard to get adequate – let alone good and nutritious – food.

What is possible right now and without any change in welfare or economic policy, is to enable everyone to access the support to which they are entitled, whether that be free school meals, Best Start food vouchers or other benefits. However, we must also look to the longer-term by ensuring that everyone is able to afford enough nourishing food, by supporting more local food enterprises to build a stronger and more resilient food system that benefits local people, and by recognising and properly supporting and funding our community food sector − a sector which fills the gaps and picks up the pieces when the economy and the state fail our most vulnerable.

This blog is part of a series of blogs on the cost-of-living crisis. The other blogs in the series can be accessed here:

A cost-of-living crisis - for whom?

Cost-of-living crisis: Working together is right on the money

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April e-update

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Further evidence of detrimental changes to population health

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