Up to 1.5 million more children in England should get free school meals to help tackle a growing crisis of food poverty and unhealthy eating, according to a blueprint billed as the first national food strategy since war rationing.
The government-commissioned report also warns that the climate crisis will be the source of the next food emergency, demands more than £2bn for farmers to improve the countryside, and condemns faux-healthy food labelling by big brands – including the idea of “healthy” Marks & Spencer Percy Pig sweets.
The author of the strategy, the Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby, said Covid-19 had highlighted stark economic, health and nutritional inequalities which are set to be made worse by the pandemic’s economic fallout. He warned that “the wave of unemployment now rushing towards us is likely to create a sharp rise in food insecurity and outright hunger”.
Proposing a range of government interventions to bolster the diets of the UK’s poorest families, he added: “In the post-lockdown recession, many more families will struggle to feed themselves adequately. A government that is serious about ‘levelling up’ must ensure that all children get the nutrition they need.”
Poor diet was responsible for 90,000 deaths annually and cost the NHS £6bn a year even before Covid-19. Dimbleby said hundreds of conversations and meetings revealed widespread public support for state intervention to improve diets, adding: “It seems clear that the state has the moral authority to intervene in people’s lives to help them eat better, especially given the terrible costs that diet-related disease imposes on our society.”
The report, commissioned by the former environment secretary Michael Gove in 2019, is a wide-ranging examination of the country’s food system, from the dominance of supermarkets and the post-Brexit food supply, to “the slow-motion disaster of the British diet” and the rise in food banks.
It comes 48 hours after the launch of a government anti-obesity strategy that was criticised for putting responsibility on the shoulders of individuals instead of tackling structural inequalities.
Although Dimbleby concludes the UK’s food system stood up well to what he called “its biggest stress-test since the second world war” amid panic-buying, he warned there was no room for complacency and that the next major food crisis was likely to come from shortages caused by climate change.
Brexit offered the UK a once-in-a lifetime chance to ensure high standards in food and farming and animal welfare, he claimed, recommending that ministers introduce a system of safeguards to ensure that future trade deals do not open up UK markets to cheaper, substandard produce.
“The deals we make now will shape the food system of the future, affecting everything from the livelihoods of our farmers to animal welfare and climate change. The issue of how to strike trade deals without lowering food standards needs to be addressed now before it is too late,” the report says.
Covid-19 had revealed with “terrible clarity” the damage done to the nation’s health by the food system, he said. The emergence of diet-related illness as a major risk factor for death from Covid-19 “has given a new urgency to the slow-motion disaster of the British diet,” he said, promising to publish next year more detailed ideas of how the state could intervene to improve diets.
Dimbleby was scathing of brands and supermarkets that mislabelled sugar-filled products as healthy sweets. This practice was rampant, he said, though he singled out popular M&S sweets for particular criticism, saying: “I have had a bugbear about Percy Pigs for a while. Percy Pigs are a sweet that is marketed on the front with all-natural fruit juice and it’s right by your kids’ little fingers, and on the back [of the packet], if you understand calorie labelling, the first four ingredients are forms of sugar. I just think that is not right.”
The report urges ministers to accelerate the Environmental Land Management scheme, which would pay English farmers £2.4bn a year to ensure they improve the countryside, encourage carbon capture and increase biodiversity.
Dimbleby, who co-authored the School Food Plan for government in 2013, proposed three “quick and relatively straightforward steps” to take to tackle the nutritional crisis facing the poorest children, noting that the food budget is often the first thing cut by hard-up families.
An expansion of free school meals to 1.5 million more 7 to 16-year-olds in households claiming universal credit benefit. This is estimated to cost an extra £670m a year. Only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of a school meal, according to the report.
A nationwide £200m expansion of holiday hunger schemes currently state-funded in 16 local council areas and reaching 50,000 children. Around 3 million children are at risk of hunger during the school holidays, the report says.
An expansion of the Healthy Start fresh fruit, milk and vegetables voucher scheme for pregnant mothers, increasing its value and encouraging supermarkets to supplement the voucher with free fresh produce.
The report concludes that Covid-19 reaffirmed “an important principle that in a crisis of this size you need to reinforce the entire societal safety net”. However, he did not address the benefits or problems of low pay, telling journalists that “my job is big enough anyway without redesigning the benefit system”.
Dimbleby, whose father is the presenter David Dimbleby, is to publish a second part of the food strategy in 2021, looking more closely at climate change issues and bioscience. The government has pledged to respond in the form of a White Paper six months after the second part is published.
Tim Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at London’s City University, said: “It’s a thoughtful report which recognises that consumers with unequal information cannot deal with the power of the industry. It’s the beginning of good.”
Ben Reynolds, deputy chief executive of food and farming campaigners Sustain, said: “We welcome this thoughtful and comprehensive vision of what our food system looks like right now, and the attention it gives to the urgent response needed to coronavirus.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Free school meals at least guarantee that children going hungry at home get one nutritious meal a day during term time, which can be vital for their wellbeing and education.”
An M&S spokesperson said: “All our products have clear labelling so that customers can make informed choices about what they buy. All our Percy Pigs are made with natural fruit juices and no artificial colours or flavourings and last year we also introduced a range of Percy Pigs with one third less sugar.”