With the news that Theresa May’s short-sighted plan to axe universal infant free school meals now looks politically impossible, there is hope again that we can make it normal and easy for children to eat at least one good meal every day.
Diet has overtaken all other drivers of poor health, although air pollution appears to be in hot pursuit. One in ten children is obese when they start primary school – by the time they leave that’s doubled to one in five. 42% of children get less than the recommended one hour of physical activity every day. It’s time to get serious about changing the environment and culture that trap our children in bad eating habits and car seats. A great way to think about this is to take a child’s day and walk through it, asking ourselves at every stage: how can we make it more normal, easy and enjoyable for them to eat well, be active and breathe clean air?
A school day
A typical child’s breakfast - bowl of sugary cereal, slice of bread and jam, glass of juice - will blow a child’s recommended free sugar limit for the entire day. Leave a child free to cruise the supermarket cereal aisle and how long does it take them to find the cereals meant for them? What if cartoon characters were only allowed on high-fibre low-sugar cereals? What if the added sugar content was shown in big numbered teaspoons?
Then there’s the school run. In 1970, about 80 per cent of British eight-year-olds walked to school unaccompanied. By 1990,only 9 per cent did. What changed was that British car use doubled. In 2012, 738 children were killed or seriously injured while walking or cycling on our roads, equivalent to over seven whole primary schools. Now air pollution is recognised as an even bigger killer.
What if our cities spent on bike lanes what Copenhagen does? What if a sustained advertising campaign made driving over 20 mph in neighbourhoods a cultural taboo on a par with drink driving?
On to school lunches. We have come a long way since turkey twizzlers. Every child in their first three years of school sits down together to eat a healthy school meal every day, trying things they’d never try at home because the other kids are eating it too. Over half of England’s primary schools have achieved our Food for Life standards for school meals – meaning real, freshly cooked, local and organic food on the menu.
Over a thousand schools are Food for Life-awarded for getting kids cooking and growing and visiting farms with a proven boost to their fruit and veg eating. What if every primary school was a Food for Life school? A robust evaluation suggests that 1 million more children would be eating their five a day. Can we afford not to make that investment in child health? And yet relentless Government cuts to local authority public health budgets starve initiatives like Food for Life of funding – the Government turns its back on prevention while the NHS accelerates towards bankruptcy.
After school, there’s the gauntlet of the chip van loitering at the school gates. Children in disadvantaged areas are twice as likely to encounter fast food outlets and burger vans on their way home from school. What if junk food outlets were banned near schools and business rates were halved for healthier food shops and takeaways?
A weekend or holiday
Many of us troop off to the leisure centre with kids for swimming and soft play and birthday parties. What if they emerged hungry from the pool to find nothing but healthy snacks and water in place of the junk-filled vending and chips-with-everything party menus?
What if the only trading licenses granted for parks were for healthy snack vans? What if Sunday became Playing Out Day, with parents encouraged to join up to use temporary street orders to close streets to cars for a few hours so the children can kick a ball and learn to ride that bike?
And finally, what if eating out with kids in pubs and restaurants and at zoos and museums wasn’t such total hell for any parent wanting their child to eat well? The Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign sees armies of undercover families from all walks of life go out each summer to rate family restaurants and visitor attractions, allowing us to name and shame them in a media-splash league table. Over eight million children’s meals a year have dramatically improved as a result of the campaign.
The answer to all these ‘What Ifs’ is partly about convincing the Government to get serious about prevention and child health, perhaps by channelling some of the anger parents felt about the threat to school meals.
But that’s not the whole answer. Sometimes people and places just have to crack on without central Government. Think of the response of US people, city mayors and businesses to Trump pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement. This month, the Sustainable Food Cities conference in Edinburgh brought together over 50 UK cities where people, policy makers and businesses are working together to make good food normal, easy and enjoyable for everyone.
A good food movement is growing, made up of passionate people raising food standards and transforming food culture across schools, nurseries, hospitals, leisure centres, high street restaurant chains, visitor attractions. The playing out and active travel movements are growing fast too, spurred in part by the growing concern around air pollution. Together, these movements hold the key to making it easy for children to eat and live well, and they need all the support it can get.