Children on free school meals are eating “significantly” less healthy food since the Covid-19 lockdown began, according to new research.
A study by Northumbria University has found that around half of children on meal vouchers have had a significant drop in fruit and vegetables since schools closed in March.
Just over half of the pupils said they had eaten no fresh vegetables in three days and almost half said they had eaten no fruit in the same period. But many reported a large increase in sugary drinks and snacks.
The study comes a week after many English schools reopened their doors to children in selected year groups, and days after the Welsh Government said schools would reopen by the end of June.
Professor Greta Defeyter, director of the university’s Health Living Lab, said: “These preliminary findings make for pretty horrific reading.”
Increase in unhealthy snacks
The researchers worked with nearly 60 children aged nine to 12 in London and the North East of England, who completed questionnaires on eating, sleeping and physical activity across six days.
The data was collected on three days before and three days during the lockdown.
Before schools closed, the children ate just over one portion of fruit a day on average. During lockdown, 45 percent said they had eaten no fruit, while the remaining children had eaten an average of half a portion of fruit a day.
Some 55 percent said they had eaten no fresh vegetables in the lockdown period and the average intake dropped from just over two portions a day to half a portion a day.
But there was a four-fold increase in sugar-sweetened drinks and a substantial rise in the amount of crisps, chocolates and sweets they were eating.
Their consumption of unhealthy snacks increased from an average of one over three days to six portions across three days at home during lockdown.
Around 25 percent of the children said they had skipped at least one meal a day prior to schools closing – usually their breakfast. This increased to 35 percent following lockdown.
The researchers point out that although the Department for Education introduced a shopping voucher scheme worth £15 a week per child in England to support those who would normally receive free school meals, many parents and schools reported issues with the scheme, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland introduced their own alternatives.
They say there is a “high probability” that children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds will be disproportionately disadvantaged when the new academic year begins in September due to a lack of healthy food and lost classroom learning.
They have called for a universal schools meals service and school breakfast club programme to be made available to all children.
Professor Defeyter said: “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.”
Baroness Boycott, Chair of the charity Feeding Britain said: “The social and economic consequences of coronavirus are exposing millions of people in our country to hunger and malnutrition.
“As these preliminary findings show, we need a seamless year-round programme of nutritious meals for all children which incorporates school breakfasts and dinners, as well as a continuation of that service, alongside enriching activities, during the holiday periods.”