HC 1048-III Health CommitteeWritten evidence from the School Food Trust (PH 37)

Summary

The food that children eat has a direct impact on their health. Improving the diet of children and young people, at school, at home and in the community is important because:

Habits that are developed as children are carried into adult life and impact on their future reliance on health services.

Poor nutrition is at the heart of the health inequalities faced by many children.

Healthy school food improves children’s health—and their behaviour and performance at school.

Healthy children are able to reach their full potential—when children eat well, they do well.

As a result, we suggest that the proposed minimum membership of the statutory Health and Wellbeing boards should include a children’s food specialist.

Evidence

1. The School Food Trust is the Government’s leading expert advisor on children’s food. We work in schools to transform school food and run the largest network of cooking clubs in England which gives adults and children the confidence, skills and knowledge to make healthy food choices and cook good food themselves. We welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to this committee, and to contribute to the Government’s plans to tackle public health challenges.

Why is children’s food so important?

2. Experts predict that, left unchecked, overweight and obesity will cost the UK economy £50 billion a year by 2050—with devastating social and health consequences. Clearly, the food that children eat has a direct impact on their health. Improving the diet of children and young people, at school, at home and in the community is important because:

Habits that are developed as children are carried into adult life and impact on their future reliance on health services.

Poor nutrition is at the heart of the health inequalities faced by many children.

Healthy school food improves children’s health – and their behaviour and performance at school.

Healthy children are able to reach their full potential—when children eat well, they do well.

3. We continue to see a significant increase in diet related illnesses amongst children. The Advisory Panel on Food and Nutrition in the Early Years, February 2011, highlighted that children eat too little carbohydrate and essential minerals such as iron and zinc, and too much salt and sugar. Type 2 diabetes is appearing at earlier and earlier ages, and dental health in young children is deteriorating.

4. The National Child Measurement Programme 2009–10 reported that in Reception, nearly a quarter (23.1%) of the children measured were either overweight or obese. In Year 6, this rate was one in three (33.4%). The percentage of obese children in Year 6 (18.7%) was nearly double that of Reception (9.8%), whilst the percentage of overweight children was higher in Year 6 (14.6%) than in Reception (13.3%).

5. The health and life chances of too many children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are being undermined by obesity and diet related diseases and conditions. But health is not just about the presence of disease or illness—it is about being able to take advantage of the opportunities offered—being able to flourish. The personal and social impacts of the food children choose, or are offered, often determine their future and have life-long consequences. Undernourished children are less likely to reach their full potential.

A children’s food specialist on all Health and Wellbeing boards

6. There is a range of complex factors which affect a child’s diet. Detailed understanding and expert advice on these are fundamental to enabling Directors of Public Health to shape local services and deliver their vision for public health. We suggest that the proposed minimum membership of the statutory Health and Wellbeing boards should include a children’s food specialist. Such a person would provide the expert overview of the composite picture linking food and improved health. Their advice would also help councils to adopt a holistic approach to food—and to join up policies to make the maximum impact and secure cost savings.

7. Ensuring that the Health and Wellbeing boards include a children’s food specialist will support the targeted and rapid development work that is needed. Their presence would encourage councils to review and influence the food provision across local community services, and support changes to the environment so that healthy choices are easier to make.

8. The opportunities are varied and compelling. For example, standards in the food that is served to children in hospitals are currently variable—many hospitals serve meals that have high levels of salt and fat which are linked to an increased risk of children developing high blood pressure and diet related disease such as obesity. And the average calorie content of the snacks most often found in vending machines in leisure centres is 203. An average seven year old would need to swim for 88 minutes to use up these calories.

9. A children’s food specialist would help councils understand the impact of a balanced diet on the full range of public health outcomes, including obesity. Only when the impact is understood can an action plan be developed to bring about the changes necessary. Food for children—in school and outside—and cooking education should be clearly linked into the public health planning process.

A change worth making – the School Food Trust experience

10. The Trust was established on the principle of helping people to help themselves. We agree that everyone needs to take responsibility for their own health, but people need to be properly informed and to be given the skills they need to make healthy choices. We have increased—rather than decreased—the food choices available at schools. This has introduced children and young people to unfamiliar food and helped them to make healthy choices in an increasingly commercial environment. We have helped children and adults to improve their own cooking and food skills and seen them develop a real enjoyment of good food. Our interventions, based on nudging people in the right direction, are bringing about real changes:

The 30 year decline in the number of school meals eaten has been reversed – the number of school meals eaten every day continues to rise.

The quality of school food has risen. School meals are more nutritious than packed lunches. More fruit and vegetables are being eaten for school lunch.

Learning related behaviours in the classroom (concentration and attention) improve after children have eaten a school lunch.

Over 4,000 Let’s Get Cooking clubs are in operation across England, improving the cooking and food skills of 900,000 adults and children.

58% of Let’s Get Cooking club members report eating more healthily.

90% of Let’s Get Cooking club members report they use their new skills at home.

11. The School Food Trust is ideally placed to provide support to the children’s food specialists on Health and Wellbeing boards.

12. The food children eat today make them the adults they become tomorrow Good quality food improves children’s health, behaviour and performance. It helps children develop good eating habits—which are shared with their families—and plays a significant role in assisting them to maintain a healthy weight. Food and cooking is an important part of culture, and plays vital non-nutritive roles. Recognising and engaging with diverse foods enriches people’s lives, and provides a basis for sharing experiences and connecting with others. Improving the food children eat and giving them food skills is a common sense way to improve their health. A public health system that recognises the importance of children’s food is one that gives all children a healthy start and the opportunity to flourish.

13. The School Food Trust has separately offered contributions to the forthcoming Department of Health Obesity Document.

June 2011

Prepared 28th November 2011