Taking a long-term approach to children's health

William Roberts, CEO, Royal Society for Public Health

Yesterday I spoke at the launch of the 'The Health of the Next Generation – Good Food for Children’ report launch at the House of Lords. The launch, hosted by Baroness Desouza and Baroness Lister, brought together public health bodies, charities and politicians of all stripes to hear the findings of the report. 

The report could not come at a more timely moment. The data on child food insecurity is stark. In September of 2022, over a quarter of households with children experienced food insecurity and the cost-of living crisis is exacerbating this. The impacts of food insecurity in childhood greatly affects children's development and educational attainment. They also go far beyond the school gates, as food insecurity is linked to poorer health outcomes and lower levels of productivity well into adulthood. 

The recommendations in the report

The report very clearly lays out the opportunity to improve the health, happiness and attainment of children by expanding access to nutritious food through the Free School Meal Programme (FSM), National School Breakfast Programme, and the Healthy Start Voucher scheme. 

The priority recommendation is the call for the Government to adopt universal school meal provision for all primary and secondary school children in England. The introduction of this policy has the potential to deliver immediate benefits for children across the country, namely: 

  • An improvement in overall diet quality for children 

  • Reducing the chances of children developing overweight or obesity 

  • Increased academic performance 

  • Reduced socio-economic inequality over the life course for low-income children 

The report highlights the overwhelmingly strong evidence base which supports the introduction of universal FSM, drawing on the successes of the policy at home and abroad. You can read the full report along with the twelve recommendations here.

The costs of prevention 

The costs associated with expanding FSM across all primary and secondary schools in England have been estimated at £2.5 billion per year. In a spending averse political climate this may sound like a big sum. However, the cost of failing to act is far greater. Analysis of universal Free School Meals has shown that for every £1 invested is estimated to bring a return of £1.71. Taken over a 20-year period, this could generate nearly £100billion to our economy.  

In addition, we know that obesity - the risk of which is increased by food insecurity - currently costs the NHS over £6 billion annually, a number expected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050. With these figures in mind, the question policymakers should be asking is: ‘can we afford to not expand Free School Meals?’  

Collectively we’re taking positive steps 

There is already lots of great work happening across the UK to support the recommendations in the report. In some cases they are already being implemented. However, the nature of the funding that these programmes receive is often uncertain.  

One of the key aspects is its universalism. Ensuring that all children have access to nutritious meals reduces the stigma that can be associated with FSM. If we want a healthy and prosperous nation, we must start viewing child nutrition as a long-term priority that affects everyone. The recommendations in this report provide the framework to support the healthy development of children from infancy right the way through to adulthood. 

With 68% of voters in favour of expanding Free School Meals and the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of FSM, the incentives for government to act now could not be stronger. Children are key to a healthy nation, but also a wealthy and prosperous nation.

When me and my team sat down to discuss the recommendations in the report, the only question we were left asking was: 'Why wouldn't we do this?'