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Experts warn of severe health impacts for children not getting proper nutrition in school

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British children are vulnerable to major health problems in the future without ‘urgent’ action to ensure they get more nutritious meals at school, experts warn.

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A leading pediatrician and nutritionist says both food insecurity and poor diets can “dramatically” worsen the long-term health outcomes of UK schoolchildren.

This is the result of our Feed the Future campaign, working with a coalition of organizations coordinated by the Food Foundation, to petition Prime Minister Liz Truss to provide free school meals to all families with the UK’s Universal Credit. It came true when we reached 215,000 signatories. In England, about 800,000 people rely on universal credit but live in households without access to free school meals.

Dr. Michael McKean, consultant pulmonary pediatrician and vice president of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, says poor diets affect children’s health in “myriad” ways. “There are many adults who have severe cardiovascular disease or cancer that originate in childhood. Malnutrition also reduces a child’s ability to fight infectious diseases, as was seen in many adults during the Covid-19 pandemic. But it also affects children.”

Dr McKean said children on poor-quality diets were “more likely to develop illnesses requiring NHS treatment” later in life and “cost society more” in the long run. increase. “As pediatricians, we are watching this unfold. This was not happening 20 years ago as it is now. It’s getting worse.”

The cost of living crisis also forces many children to skip meals during the day. Last week, the principal told The Independent that she was noticing students stealing from supermarkets and cafeterias to stave off hunger.

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Dr Annette Creedon, nutrition administrator at the British Nutrition Foundation, said hunger can have serious psychological effects on children and impair their ability to learn. increase. ”

She added: Having a regular eating pattern helps the body regulate blood sugar, which helps regulate hormones that control mood and focus.

In recent years, the government has put an emphasis on healthy eating in schools, putting lunch boxes at the center amid concerns that sugary drinks, chocolate and potato chips are harming children’s health. A 2016 study by researchers at the University of Leeds found that less than 2% of primary school lunches in the UK meet nutritional standards.

But Stephanie Slater, chief executive of the charity School Food Matters, said it was “extremely difficult” for low-income parents to provide nutritious lunches. The thing is, there’s a stigma and shame about bringing in an inadequate bento,” she said.

“I hear stories of children who show up empty-handed or sit quietly by themselves in embarrassment. , you can’t work or study when you’re hungry or something, and we don’t need research to tell us that.”

She said that in the absence of formal government regulation, it is often left up to teachers to “monitor” the nutritional value of lunch boxes. can lead to,” she added.

A PwC study released last week found that providing free school meals to all poor children in the UK would bring in economic benefits of £2.5 billion over 20 years. Dr Creedon said expanding access to free school meals could have a “positive impact on vulnerable households facing food insecurity.” “It will also improve nutrition and educational attainment gaps among children in the UK,” she added.

But to improve children’s long-term health outcomes, Dr McKean said policymakers who have “taken their eyes off the ball” need to make the issue a priority for governments. “We forget that children and young people are our most valuable assets. They are our future and it is our choice to ensure that they all have proper nutrition.” .”