Children's health and food

Bringing together the ingredients for a healthier food system

2 October 2023
4 min read

Head of Policy and Influencing Mark Heffernan reflects on progress made towards creating a healthier food system, and what needs to happen next to ensure transformative change.

Free School Meals

Earlier this month, 287,000 primary school children in London started the new school year. For the first time, all of them were eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), following the Mayor’s announcement earlier this year that he would provide emergency funding to expand entitlement against cost-of-living pressures.  

For children and families, this is a vital and timely intervention to support their health and wellbeing. For Impact on Urban Health and our partners, it reflects growing recognition of what we know: that access to healthy, nutritious food for all children, regardless of where they live and their background, is essential for building a healthy and equitable society.  

The rollout of FSM to primary school children in London also reminds us that we still have a way to go to achieve equal access to nutritious, affordable food for all children. Many children across the country will have returned to school without the certainty of a healthy meal at lunchtime. CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) have estimated that as many as 900,000 children living in poverty in England miss out on FSM due to a staggeringly low income threshold which means children from families with household incomes of above £7,400 can miss out. It’s a threshold which 71% of voters believe is inadequate, or shouldn’t exist at all, according to recent polling. 

But for now it does, and that means children missing out on the health, educational and social benefits of good school food, which we have continually evidenced. Ultimately, it means failing to give all children an equal start in life. That’s why we and our partners continue to push national government to act on health and urgently expand entitlement to FSM, with the School Food Review coalition launching its manifesto for change a couple of weeks ago. 

It’s also why we’re supporting an evaluation of the expanded rollout of FSM in London – so we can further understand how increased provision works for children and families, as well as the schools and caterers tasked with providing those extra meals. We’ll share that evidence with policymakers, schools, the public and everyone with a stake in the school food system, as we continue our work to establish what works for children’s health. 

Good food at school is an important step in ensuring children have equitable access to healthy food. But for the transformative change we need, it must be accompanied by action on the broader food industry, so that healthy food is the easiest option in shops and high streets as well as school canteens.

Good food at school is an important step in ensuring children have equitable access to healthy food. But for the transformative change we need, it must be accompanied by action on the broader food industry.

Mark Heffernan
Mark Heffernan Head of Policy and Influencing

Recipe for Change

Earlier this month, the Recipe for Change coalition launched. The campaign began with the recognition of a simple truth: too many families face challenges in accessing healthy diets due to the environment they find themselves in, with food businesses not incentivised to make their most affordable, available food also the healthiest. 

We know that small tweaks to the system to encourage healthier options can have big impacts. The Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL), introduced in 2018, set a levy for drinks producers and importers based on how much sugar was in their products – hoping to encourage them to change the recipe of their drinks and make them healthier. The Levy has been a striking success: taking 47,000 tonnes of sugar out of soft drinks every year, a 35.4% reduction. Importantly, prices for reformulated products stayed stable and sales even continued to grow – the negative economic impacts some elements of industry said were inevitable did not materialise. 

The SDIL shows that good regulation can work for health and for food companies. And while it signalled progress, there is still more to be done. 95% of children still eat more sugar than is recommended, because the products which are most marketed and freely available still contain too much of it. 

So Recipe for Change, with our support, is calling for the SDIL model to be expanded to foods high in fat, salt and sugar. We want to encourage companies to make tweaks to their recipes, make their products healthier, and ultimately ensure the foods most readily available on shelves across the country are as healthy as can be. Alongside expanding Free School Meals, it’s further recognition that what surrounds us, shapes our health – and that there is an important role for policymakers to ensure those surroundings work for everyone, regardless of where they live. 

What’s next?

Whether in schools or on high streets, momentum is building around making long overdue changes to our food system. With a general election forthcoming, there is now a key opportunity for the next government to make policy which will have potentially transformative changes on the health of children and families.  

We’ll be continuing to work with partners to make the case for those changes, starting by attending the political party conferences this month. If you’re there, come and join us, and help us advocate for a better, healthier, more equitable food system. We’re asking government to: 

  • Incentivise a healthier food industry, making the easiest and most affordable options the healthiest. This includes considering expanding the successful Soft Drinks Industry Levy to foods high in fat, salt and sugar to encourage companies to reformulate their least healthy products.  
  • Expand Free School Meal entitlement to include all children from families in receipt of Universal Credit, recognising that all children have a right to nutritious food at school, regardless of where they live.