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The importance of feeding our children better

The importance of feeding our children better by Nicola Nixon

We now know that food that is available within the current food system is making us and our planet sick at alarming rates. Poor diet is linked to 11 million early deaths, 255 million disability adjusted life years and is estimated to contribute approximately a third of greenhouse gas emissions 1,12.

Research has linked what we eat with rising levels of obesity which is a major risk factor for diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers 15. Eating ultra-processed food (UPF) is another factor that has been associated with higher levels of obesity and chronic health issues. In the UK, we eat the most UPF and have the highest levels of obesity in Western Europe 5,6,7,8.  The social and economic burden of this is overwhelming with approximately 8% of annual UK healthcare spend, £18 billion, spent on diet related illness 2.

Sadly this is also prevalent in our children, with 10% already living with obesity when they start primary school aged 5, more than doubling to 23% when they leave aged 11 9 . Despite recommendations that over a third of our diet should come from fruit & vegetables, almost a third of primary school children eat less than one portion of vegetables per day 4,10. The quality of those vegetables eaten by children is also concerning with over a third being processed, and half coming from pizza and baked beans 13. The poorest children suffer the most from low quality diets, consuming more health damaging UPF and simultaneously experiencing both malnutrition and obesity 2,5,11,16 .

In the UK, 9 million children attend school where they eat 30% to 50% of their daily food 4. School food and catering is the largest area of public sector food spend in the UK at approximately £700m every year 3,17,20. Therefore, ensuring money is spent on providing nutritious, tasty food at this key stage in children’s mental, educational, and physical development is an ideal way to impact both population and planetary health 15,18. However we have an opaque and fragmented school food system heavily biased towards lowest cost provision following the devolution of responsibility from Local Authorities and the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering in the 1980s 4,19,20. A typical catering budget for school food is currently just 60p per pupil with quality and nutrition often neglected in favour of lower cost alternatives 3,13. UPF, high in salt, refined carbohydrates, sugar and fats and low in fibre is less than half the price of minimally processed foods 14 and now makes up 72.6% of calories in primary school lunches 21.

At FixOurFood, we are working with Yorkshire Schools, meal providers and stakeholders to understand how we can feed our children with affordable, sustainable and tasty food which is good for their health and that of our planet. My research focuses on the extent to which procurement contract types can impact the quality of food we provide for primary school children. If you are interested in knowing more or are a Yorkshire primary school that would like to join our network please get in touch at:

FixOurFood in Schools Network

Please find the full list of references here: The importance of feeding our children better – Bibliography