Children's fruit and veg intake plummets during lockdown

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There are concerns about a sharp fall in disadvantaged children’s intake of fruit and vegetables during the coronavirus lockdown.

Researchers have raised the alarm after finding reduced fruit and vegetable intake for around half of pupils receiving the government’s free school meal (FSM) vouchers.

A study from Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Lab found that intake of sugary drinks had also increased for many pupils during the coronavirus lockdown.

As the country went into lockdown on March 23, the FSM vouchers were introduced to try and ensure that families of disadvantaged pupils being schooled at home could still benefit from free meals at lunchtime.

The system – which has been beset by difficulties – offered families vouchers worth £15 a week, accepted by a number of supermarkets, to cover the cost of food shopping.

The study focused on a three-day period during lockdown and involved around 60 pupils aged nine to 12 who would have received FSM at school.

It found that 55 per cent stated they had eaten no fresh vegetables. The research group’s mean vegetable intake dropped from just over two portions per day when children were at school, to an average of half a portion per day at home.

Meanwhile, 45 per cent of the children said they had not eaten any fruit –the rest said they had eaten “half a portion” of fruit. This compares to before the lockdown, when the children said they ate just over one portion a day on average.

The group also reported a four-fold increase in the consumption of sugary drinks and a substantial rise in the amount of crisps, chocolates and sweets being eaten.

Children’s consumption of unhealthy snacks increased from an average of one over the three days when they were at school to six portions across three days at home during lockdown.

Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Lab is known for its research into issues around the provision of child feeding programmes and holiday hunger. The study as a whole looked into the children’s eating, sleeping and physical activity habits across six days – three before lockdown and three during lockdown.

It is feared that problems accessing the government’s voucher scheme has not helped the situation. The online ordering system experienced significant problems and there have been huge delays for some schools and parents in accessing vouchers. There have also been numerous accounts of vouchers being rejected as families try to use them at the checkout.

Dr Emily Mann, who also worked on the study, said parents had reported difficulties: “Parents and schools in England complained about the time taken to receive the vouchers and said some shops refused to accept them as they are limited to certain supermarkets.

“The additional £15 per child from the food vouchers has not enabled the lowest income households to move out of this risk area, especially at a time when household income is likely to have suffered due to the economic impact of the pandemic.”

The researchers also asked if the children skipped any meals during lockdown. Around 25 per cent said they had skipped at least one meal a day prior to schools closing – usually their breakfast – and this increased to 35 per cent following lockdown.

Professor Greta Defeyter, director of the Healthy Living Lab, said: “These preliminary findings make for pretty horrific reading. As a nation, our shopping habits have changed, with an increase in shopping online and shopping locally. However, if a parent doesn’t have internet access or has a low data allowance, can’t afford the minimum shop for free delivery, or lives in a ‘food desert’ that is populated with fast food takeaways then it is hardly surprising that, in the absence of free school breakfasts and free school lunches, some children’s overall dietary intake has changed.

“While I welcome the fact that more supermarket chains are now included in the DfE’s voucher scheme, the preliminary findings in our report highlight wider, systematic, societal failures.”

It comes as the charity Feeding Britain is calling for automatic registration of all eligible families for NHS Healthy Start vouchers – the take-up of which it says is “pitifully low”.

Elsewhere, chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon MP, has also called for the FSM voucher scheme to be extended over the summer holiday period.

The Department for Education (DfE) has said that the scheme will stop in mid-July however campaigners are concerned that the lockdown will exacerbate holiday hunger for the poorest children.

If the scheme were to be extended for all 1.3 million eligible children then it would cost round £120 million.

Prof Defeyter, meanwhile, said that it is very likely that the poorest children will be most disadvantaged when the new academic year begins in September. She would like to see a universal school meal service and school breakfast club programme to be made available to all children.

She added: “In the immediate term, we urge the government to rethink school summer holiday provision to ensure that all children from low-income households are provided with the opportunity to access healthy food, cultural, social and physical activities during the upcoming holiday period.

“Expansion of the DfE’s funded holiday provision programme will support parents in childcare provision and their return to work, reduce parental stress, ensure children receive healthy, nutritious food that complies with school food standards, and provide a solid foundation for an extended school programme to provide long-term support to address educational learning loss.


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