The Government’s inaction on food poverty is condemning many children to a life of ill health and costing the NHS billions, a committee report has found.
The way Britain produces, manufactures, sells and consumes food is a barrier to healthy eating, a report published by the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee has warned, noting that the poorest children are the hardest hit.
It adds that putting pressure on the food industry to reduce sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and calories in processed food could save the NHS billions currently spent treating obesity and avoidable diet-related diseases.
The committee called for urgent action to ensure a healthier population, a healthier environment and to level up the most deprived communities.
In the report, entitled Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food, the Government is warned that its recommended healthy diet is too expensive for many families and that without the time, knowledge and money to shop for healthier food, the poorest are put at risk by a system which actively encourages less healthy food by making it cheaper and easier to buy.
People in Britain currently consume more highly processed food than those in any other European country and Britain has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe, the report says, noting that coronavirus should be a “wake-up call” for urgent action.
It adds that adults and children living in the most deprived areas are about twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas, contributing to a difference in healthy life expectancy of about 20 years.
The committee called on the Government to measure how many people live with food insecurity and to analyse why, to understand the cost of a healthy diet and to incorporate this into benefits calculations, and to curb excessive advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods.
It also suggests that food initiatives for disadvantaged children, such as free school meals, must be properly funded, that an independent body should be established to oversee the implementation of a National Food Strategy that reports annually to Parliament and that the Agriculture Bill must be used to encourage the production and consumption of healthier food.
Committee chairman Lord Krebs said: “Problems of diet and ill health have been staring us in the face for decades, but successive Governments have done precious little about it. While this affects everyone, people in poverty either can’t afford enough to eat or have unhealthy diets.
“Many of Britain’s poorest families have little or no choice. They either go without food or buy unhealthy food because that’s what they can afford and get hold of.
“The Government knows about the problem. It’s time to stop the dither and delay, endless talking and consultation, and get on with it.”
Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, added: “This report shows that millions of families can’t eat well unless they have sufficient income and an environment which makes the healthy choice the easiest.
“People can no longer wait for lengthy Government consultations which languish in Whitehall.
“Every day that passes where the odds are stacked against families securing a healthy diet is a missed opportunity to secure a healthy future for our children.
“One in five people in Britain live in poverty and this country has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the European Union, accounting for 20% of all severely food insecure people in Europe.”
Commenting on the report, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This report should serve as an urgent wake-up call to the Government.
“Families should be able to access not only enough food, but also the food that they need to stay healthy. With over 200,000 children pushed into poverty by the coronavirus crisis, our members know that many will go hungry unless radical steps are taken immediately.”
She added: “4.5 million children will be trapped in poverty by Christmas – Government must act now to implement a nationwide strategic plan to increase household incomes and release families from the shame and indignity of having to rely on foodbanks and food voucher schemes.”
A government spokeswoman said: “We currently spend a record £95 billion a year on our welfare system, with a further injection of £6.5 billion in response to the coronavirus outbreak. We are also giving an additional £63 million for local authorities to assist those most in need of food and essential supplies.
“The upcoming National Food Strategy will look at the entire food system, from field to fork, to ensure it delivers safe, healthy, affordable food, regardless of where people live or how much they earn.”