It’s not just lessons that children need to catch up on after Covid – it’s food and nutrition too

·5-min read
Ministers previously bowed to pressure and provided vouchers in the summer (AFP/Getty)
Ministers previously bowed to pressure and provided vouchers in the summer (AFP/Getty)

With schools a month into the new term, the focus is now firmly on making up for children’s lost learning during the Covid pandemic. It’s rumoured that the government will announce plans in the comprehensive spending review later this month for schools to be given funding to stay open later, and at weekends, to help children catch up.

According to new research published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, one-quarter of parents in England feel their children need a year or more to catch up. As ever, poorer children suffered disproportionately. Children in the poorest fifth of families did nearly eight fewer hours of learning per week than their peers in the richest fifth.

But it’s not just learning where making up lost ground is needed. In addition to falling behind in education, disadvantaged children are still less likely to be provided with nutritious food, despite the campaign to highlight the lack of free school meals during lockdown by the footballer Marcus Rashford. Even when the government backtracked and provided meals, Boris Johnson last January concurred with critics that the quality of food parcels provided was “disgraceful”.

Neither have things improved dramatically since. A report published last month by the Child Poverty Action Group and Covid Realities showed that almost 1 million of all school-aged children (36 per cent) in poverty are still not entitled to a free meal, due to the restrictive eligibility criteria preventing many in poverty from accessing any form of free school meal provision.

Covid has also exacerbated the obesity crisis. The most recent UK National Child Measurement Programme report (using pre-pandemic data) showed 21 per cent of children aged 10-11 years old in England are obese, increasing to 27.5 per cent in more deprived areas.

This will worsen because of lockdowns, because weight gain is correlated with time spent out of school during holiday closures and is greater among those of lower socioeconomic status. The massive disruption to normal day-to-day activities due to school closures also significantly increased anxiety and depression in the UK, with young people the most affected, according to a major study led by the University of Nottingham and King’s College London. There is evidence that rising stress, anxiety, tiredness and boredom were the main causes of poor eating habits, where food becomes a coping mechanism.

Childhood obesity is associated with various health conditions, including asthma, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Children who are obese are also likely to suffer from mental health and behavioural problems. In addition, an obese child is highly likely to become an obese adult. On current trends, by 2035 obesity alone will cost the NHS £15bn a year – one and a half times what it spends treating cancer today.

The arrival of fast food and ready meals in the second half of the last century has led to a dearth of culinary skills, with generations growing up without seeing cooking at home or attempting to cook themselves.

This, then, becomes an issue of behaviour change too. So, as well as looking at short-term measures to improve children’s diets, such as extending the eligibility criteria to offer poorer children access to school meals and improving the quality of the food provided, longer-term policy interventions to improve nutrition are needed.

This should include policies such as getting more fresh food and food skills to low-income households with children, including an expanded Healthy Start voucher scheme, which provides fruit and vegetable vouchers to parents with young children, and applying pressure on companies to reduce sugar content in food and drink products (as the UK government has committed to do). But it should also mean introducing taxes if the food industry fails to comply (which Boris Johnson is less keen on).

Schools can play a key role too. The problem is that although schools have been legally required since 2014 to teach cookery and nutrition to all children up to the age of 14, this is not happening according to the recent National Food Strategy, the independent review carried out by Henry Dimbleby, the government’s food tsar. Food technology is treated as a second-class subject, says the review.

As the report highlights, a reboot of food education is needed, such as exploring different foods in early years settings and continuing to sixth form. The food A-level – axed in 2016 – should be reintroduced.

The UK government could also look at what Spain has done. Despite many people thinking Spain has a healthy Mediterranean diet, its rate of childhood obesity is actually the second highest in Europe, with 40 per cent of children either overweight or obese. Spain also has the highest percentage of overweight boys, with 48 per cent of nine-year-olds an unhealthy weight, according to the World Health Organisation.

To address this, in 2018 the region of Andalusia set out to provide cultural education in schools to embed the importance of a healthy diet. The programme, Los Niños se Comen El Futuro (Children Eat the Future), teaches students traditional Andalusian recipes and shows them how to apply academic subjects like mathematics and chemistry to cooking, as well as educating them about healthy eating. As part of the programme, well known local chefs visit schools to deliver masterclasses to inspire children. In the 2019-20 academic year, the programme reached more than 6,000 schoolchildren across more than 100 schools in Andalusia.

As children return to school, we’re rightly taking the lost months of learning seriously. But it’s time to take food education seriously too.

Xanty Elías is the winner of the 2021 Basque Culinary World Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious gastronomic prizes.

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