Mother and son in kitchen

Childhood obesity COVID-19

Holding the past, present, and future when working on food during the pandemic

30 March 2021
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6 min read

Programme Director Sarah Hickey shares her reflections on COVID-19's impact on childhood obesity, and how increasing children's access to nutritious diets is more important than ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused ripple effects way beyond the immediate virus. One area heavily disrupted in the last 12 months has been food. COVID exposed long-running inequities around access to nutritious food, which have played out in exacerbated and extreme ways, highlighting critical considerations for the food system in the long term.

We’ve grappled with holding these past, present and future considerations in mind when making decisions for our childhood obesity programme during the pandemic. It has strengthened our belief in our programme principle of increasing equity of access to nutritious diets through changing food environments. It has also led us to adapt our practical approach to achieving this goal.

 

All children deserve access to the things they need to be healthy, but for many this is not a reality

In August last year there was surprise that UNICEF started funding UK-based activity (including our Breakfast Boxes) supporting children at risk of food insecurity. There was anger at pictures of sub-standard emergency food parcels for families in January, and widespread support for Marcus Rashford’s campaigns for improving children’s access to food.

These reactions resonated with findings from our previous research with Frameworks Institute. The belief that children should access the things they need to be healthy – including nutritious diets – is broadly a universal value in the UK.  However, many people don’t associate childhood obesity with large inequities around access to good diets.

There hasn’t been wide public understanding of the discrepancies around nutrition that children from different income groups experience. When people are aware of these issues, they find it difficult to know how this problem can be addressed. The pandemic helped to some extent reshape public understanding; it thrust existing food inequalities into the spotlight, and with it a sense of urgency for action.

The pandemic helped to some extent reshape public understanding; it thrust existing food inequalities into the spotlight, and with it a sense of urgency for action.

Sarah Hickey Programme Director

A rapid change to our environment leads to rapid changes in our diets

We saw population health and economy changes rapidly play out in changing purchasing and eating trends. For some, lockdown increased their home cooking and reduced their out-of-home purchasing; convenience stores took market share from larger corporates as people shopped closer to home; there was an increase in snacking across the board.

Old inequalities continued to play out in these trends; for example, households living on lower incomes were less likely to have bulk bought at the start of lockdowns, leaving them more exposed to food shortages. Overall, thousands more households fell into circumstances of food insecurity; struggling to access meals because of financial or health barriers.

For us, this displays the importance of a focus on the food options around us – rather than public information campaigns – for any programme trying to affect people’s diets. The Government recently announced a new programme of investment into weight-management services. The good advice that these services provide is largely negated by food environments that work in its opposite direction.

Campaigns like Feed Britain Better speak to actions that can have fundamental impact in reshaping our diets in the long-term.  Sustain’s recent report on the risks of Free Trade Agreements to children’s health show that legislative energy needs to focus on the larger systemic factors affecting our food options.

Women with breakfast boxes
With School Food Matters, we've now delivered 1 million breakfasts to local families.
Food in a breakfast box
Food included in a nutritionally-balanced Breakfast Box.

The food system is designed and can be redesigned

Institutions whose operations involved food in some way – from major corporations to schools and community organisations – have had to quickly react to supply chain risks, rapidly changing safety regulations and new types of demand for their services. The speed at which the Free School Meal system was redesigned for school closures, with supermarkets becoming a point of access for a new voucher system, felt extraordinary.

We saw similar adaptation amongst our partner organisations. With School Food Matters, we designed and started delivering a healthy Breakfast Box scheme within a few weeks – which has just delivered it’s one millionth breakfast. Pecan’s new community food store in Peckham has seen unprecedented demand since the start pandemic with over 2,000 households joining the scheme to access affordable healthy food with dignity and choice, and we are supporting them to scale and sustain the Pantry model. With Shift we pivoted from a healthy takeaway model to provide food to families who were struggling due to the pandemic. Through its brand Mama Leys, Shift partnered with local distributors and community groups to create a wide range of menus, serving 3,750 meals by the end of 2020.

With these adaptations, we have tried to keep reflecting on what this means for our future work. For example, lessons from our Breakfast Boxes showed the value of rapid project iteration and keeping the end user needs at the absolute centre of project design. Looking further ahead, this project has led to us ask what a universal, sustained, healthy school breakfast offer would look like.

Overall, thousands more households fell into circumstances of food insecurity; struggling to access meals because of financial or health barriers.

Sarah Hickey Programme Director

To understand a problem – and shape solutions – lived experience needs a voice in the debate

Last year we funded a series of YouGov polling commissioned by the Food Foundation, exploring people’s lived experience of food during the pandemic. The surveys cumulative findings exposed the fact that food insecurity was much more widely spread than first thought, Government responses weren’t always reaching target groups, and households with children were at higher risk of food insecurity. These findings were widely covered and incorporated into policy debates.

Research on the Breakfast Box scheme found that one in four families identified by schools as needing support were not eligible for free school meals: painting a wider picture of food insecurity than Government subsidy data.

We also funded a piece of research led by Bite Back 2030 looking at young people’s experiences of food during the pandemic, demonstrating diverse impacts on young people from different backgrounds, as well as growing awareness of food as a topic of social justice. This research informed the youth-led Feed Britain Better campaign for fairer food systems. Without these perspectives, we’d be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle when taking actions on food.

Looking ahead

We are almost halfway through our ten-year childhood obesity programme. For the next five years, we will continue to focus on changing the decades-long inequities around children’s access to nutritious diets. Policy and industry making real and consistent changes to support the National Food Strategy, reform of the school food system and decoupling of corporate sales from unhealthy food feel critical to ensuring population resilience against poor health and COVID-like shocks in the future.

We’ll be continuing to feed in insights from our place-based delivery to inform this national work; with a focus on what works in practice within areas of high levels of income inequality.