Food insecurity is toxic for our children and a threat to the future of our next generation

Russell Viner, professor of child and adolescent health at UCL, writes an open letter to Parliamentarians calling for support on the implementation of National Food Strategy recommendations on children’s food insecurity

Levels of food insecurity among households with children were already high before the pandemic and have increased substantially since March 2020.      

14.6% of households with children have experienced food insecurity in the past six months—2.5 million children live in these households. These levels are 27% higher than before covid-19.    

Food insecurity in the past month in households with children (11.0%) has been almost twice as high as households without children (5.8%).

The case for action is clear. Food insecurity is a complex mix of malnutrition and stress. You will know the central importance of nutrition during childhood for development of all organs, particularly the brain. Poor childhood nutrition leads to poor physical and mental health in childhood, but also worse adult health, poorer cognitive development, and lower later productivity and wellbeing. Stress during childhood is also toxic to the developing organism, leading to higher adult ill health and poorer wellbeing. There is increasing evidence that this combination harms children right now and harms the adults they will become.

A recent NIHR review found that food-insecure children had poorer physical health across a wide range of indicators, from greater levels of asthma and dental caries, to higher levels of hospitalisations, as well as lower wellbeing and quality of life and higher levels of homelessness and substance use.

Particularly worrying is evidence from a large recent survey of English school-children during lockdown, which showed that those who experienced food poverty were more likely to report deteriorating wellbeing during lockdown and had three times the risks of having depression or anxiety. 

Inequalities are widened by food insecurity. The data are clear that food insecurity is more common among children living in poverty. Food insecurity in childhood is part of the way that the social determinants of health get “under our skin” in early life, create and widen health inequalities, and determine our health across our lifespan. 

The healthcare costs that food insecurity brings are significant and risk being a larger burden on the public purse for the next 50 years. Data from Canada show that compared with total annual health care costs in food-secure households, adjusted annual costs were 32% higher in households with moderate food insecurity and 76% higher in households with severe food insecurity: These costs are in excess of costs related to obesity, which is of course related to food insecurity. 

The recommendations in the National Food Strategy represent an evidence-based way forward. Three recommendations are key to reduce food insecurity amongst children.

  • The Healthy Start scheme targets the youngest children.
  • Free School Meals and the Holiday Activities and Food Programme together ensure that children at risk of food insecurity have access to at least one high quality meal a day, both in and out of the school term.

Each of these is achievable, effective, able to be rapidly deployed and represent good value for money.

Food insecurity is toxic for our children and a threat to the future of the next generation and our prosperity as a country.  

I urge you to put your support behind adopting these recommendations and asking the Government to prioritise children’s health and wellbeing in the upcoming Spending Review.

Russell Viner is professor of child and adolescent health at UCL. He was President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health from 2018-2021 and a member of SAGE during the covid-19 pandemic. 

Competing interests: none declared.