THE BLOG

Foodbank Britain: Is Malnutrition The New Normal?

17/07/2017 16:45 BST | Updated 17/07/2017 16:45 BST
Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

Recently I attended an event hosted by the Food Foundation, a fantastic organisation which aims to find solutions to deal with the challenges facing the UK's food system, such as food poverty and insecurity.

The event was a discussion of a report showing shocking statistics highlighting that British children's diets are the worst in Europe.

It is a blight on society that as the fifth richest country in the world, we have one of the worst records of food insecurity and child obesity - both forms of malnutrition.

If you live in a deprived area, your children are twice as likely to be obese compared to your neighbours in a wealthy area. And 10% of our children live in a household where day to day, they don't know where their next meal is coming from.

The harsh reality is, that the combination of low income and a food system which makes unhealthy food more convenient, attractive and frequently cheaper than healthy food, is toxic for children's health. It leads to children being overweight and obese, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, poor growth, development and poor mental health.

Only a year ago, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street talking about the burning injustice that, if you're born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. But her Government have done nothing to tackle these injustices or investigate the root causes of deprivation or health inequality.

In fact, the Tory austerity agenda is directly responsible for exacerbating problems of food insecurity. Figures released by The Trussell Trust in April show that UK foodbank use continues to rise, whilst over a million three day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis in the past year alone, including over 430,000 children.

Seven years of punitive public policy has systematically eroded the welfare safety net where every social policy announcement has turned the screw tighter and tighter. This, combined with low pay, increasing food prices and a brutal budget cutting agenda across public services has brought more and more working families to the brink.

If the Prime Minister had got her own way in the General Election, infants would no longer be provided with a free school lunch which has been a massive help to working parents and ensures every child, regardless of background, is afforded at least one healthy hot meal a day. With over 5000 families and 10,000 children estimated to be at risk of extreme poverty and homelessness, taking this entitlement away would have meant financial pain to many parents and meant hunger pains for thousands of young children.

The Government's resistance to acknowledge or respond to the wealth of evidence highlighting the impact of their policies is staggering.

Just last year, The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) raised "serious concerns" about the UK Government's failures to prioritise children's needs. One of the Committee's 150 recommendations called on Government to "regularly monitor and assess the effectiveness of policies and programmes on child food security and nutrition, including school meal programmes and food banks, and programmes addressing infants and young children."

The UNCRC were also concerned at the high rates of child poverty which disproportionately affect children with disabilities or living in a household with a person affected by disability, households with many children and children belonging to ethnic minority groups.

A Unicef Report published just last month found that the UK has some of the highest levels of hunger and deprivation of the world's richest nations. Moderate or severe food insecurity was found to effect nearly 20% of children under 15 in the UK, significantly higher than the average for developed countries.

Despite these devastating statistics, the Government won't face up to the problem and put in place a measure of food insecurity. I have consistently called for a closure in the data gap with an annual survey instrument for instance but they have refused to come to terms with the issue, instead denying the accuracy of the data or simply turning a blind eye in the hope that if they don't measure food insecurity, the problem magically doesn't officially exist.

The Agriculture Bill is an obvious opportunity to address some of these issues in this parliament. It aims to provide a vision of a new food system which focuses on the production of healthy, quality food at affordable prices. We need to consider how we can incentivise demand for healthy food from those who struggle to afford it, through the support we offer to our farmers.

We also need a fresh outlook on nutrition. The UK is currently presiding over a major nutrition problem. 27% of adults are obese, the second highest rate in Europe. However, the UK are not alone. It is a worldwide phenomenon. Nearly one in three people in the world are malnourished.

It is clear we need an open, global discussion in how to tackle problems of food insecurity, sustainability and nutrition in order to break this cycle of malnutrition that afflicts our poorest and most vulnerable in society. Our world is changing rapidly. By 2050 we will need to feed two billion more people. Politicians and policy makers are struggling to keep up but we need a comprehensive global approach to how we grow and consume our food - from soil to plate.

Early year intervention remains absolutely vital in offering a solution to the food crisis Britain faces. All the evidence points to the importance of getting nutrition right in the first 1000 days from conception. School food is very important and we must protect any progress we have made, but it is not enough.

We urgently need cohesive, cross-government action to deal with a time bomb that is already impacting children's health and educational attainment.

In the long-term however, only a Labour Government would introduce real, effective measures that would change children's lives. Labour's manifesto promised the introduction of a Child Health Bill; a new Index of Child Health; a new childhood obesity strategy with proposals on advertising and food labelling; to enshrine the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child into Domestic Law; and a standardised data collection on child health indicators Only this combination of measures would help to combat the horrifying food inequality facing our youngest in society.

If Theresa May really wanted to tackle the "burning injustices" in society, sorting out the food epidemic in Britain from soil to plate should have been a priority. Instead, we are left with a Prime Minister who was able to identify and commentate on a social truth, but when given the opportunity to put things right, presented the public with a manifesto that perpetuated injustice, punished the poor and ignored the modern scourge of malnutrition now becoming the norm in 21st Century Britain.