COVID-19 Children's health and food

Improving children’s access to nutritious food during COVID-19

30 April 2020
5 min read

Improving children’s health and addressing childhood obesity has become ever more pressing in light of COVID-19. Programme Director Sarah Hickey explores how we’re adapting our programme to further increase children’s access to nutritious food during the pandemic.

Sarah Hickey
Sarah Hickey
Interim Executive Director

In a situation where people are worried about their ability to find and pay for food, talking about childhood obesity can seem somewhat beside the point. 

Yet, we’ve always thought about childhood obesity as an issue that is about access to food. That is, how easy or difficult it is for children to eat the food they need to thrive. 

COVID-19 requires organisations working in food reform to adapt to an uncertain context. What remains constant are the risks of a system where there is a huge variation in families’ ability to access nutritious food. 


Breaking the link between income and diet

It feels ever more pressing to break the link between income and diet through fundamental changes in the role that food plays in children’s spaces.

The current situation has shone a spotlight on health inequality in our cities. It has also highlighted the fact that it has been largely normalised. And, there’s a risk that this inequality will become even worse as a result of the pandemic.

Our programme focuses on what a ‘whole-systems’ approach to children’s health means in practice within an inner-city context. It involves working with schools, supermarkets, fast food outlets and anyone else who plays a part in what ends up on young people’s plates. 

We use evidence-backed ways to shape people’s food environment. We do this to make a nutritious diet easier, rather than harder, than eating unhealthily. 

For us, this is about food in our daily lives better meeting user needs of affordability, convenience and taste while also being healthy. It is about stemming the flood of food options that serve children with excess fat and calories but little other nutritional value.


Using our resources to have the greatest impact

In responding to COVID-19, we think we’ll have the most impact on areas where we have expertise, partners and delivery infrastructure to contribute. We are using this programme scope to know where to direct our resources. 

Emergency food delivery infrastructure is being set up and/or delivered through statutory, commercial and charity partnerships. We don’t want to duplicate or confuse this work. Rather, we want to look for where we can increase its impact on families who are eligible for or could benefit from Free School Meals. 

Our focus is seeing where we can extend the reach of these support services and on making the food as healthy as possible. Second, to make sure we capture the lessons coming out for food systems.

In practice, this means:

First, to assess the impact of this crisis on the work of our current partnerships and projects. Most of these focus in some way on helping children to access nutritious diets. Our first job here is to listen. Our partners are the organisations delivering in our communities; they have insight about what’s needed and how they can best help. 

Our second job has been to provide them, as far as possible and as flexibly as possible, with what they need to keep delivering effectively. For most of our partners, this has meant adapting and in some cases pausing work altogether. Our goal has been to enable this flex and to minimise detrimental impact on organisations themselves.

Second, building on this is to deliver COVID-19 specific support. For example, we are exploring how to increase the number of healthy breakfast deliveries with School Food Matters and Chefs in Schools. And, support the provision of nutritious lunches to families surviving on lower incomes. 

It feels ever more pressing to break the link between income and diet through fundamental changes in the role that food plays in children’s spaces.

Sarah Hickey
Sarah Hickey Programme Director

We’re also looking at how we can support supermarkets and fast food retailers to develop new healthy food offers. In particular, around the emergency Free School Meal vouchers now provided.

With Alexandra Rose Charity, we’re working to help sustain families’ access to fruit and veg vouchers. This is both through Rose vouchers and Healthy Start, a government voucher initiative. 

We’ve provided funding to increase the capacity of the Southwark Food Action Alliance, as a vital piece of infrastructure helping coordinate food efforts in the borough. 

A key principle is to work as iteratively as possible so that we can get going with new projects quickly. But, with the flexibility to adapt as they go along.

Third, to invest in capturing lessons from the current context that are important for those shaping food businesses and systems in the longer-term. This includes supporting new research highlighting people’s lived experience of food in the context of COVID-19. For example, Food Foundation’s recurrent YouGov survey and research that Bite Back 2030 and Livity have kicked off, exploring the issue for young people. 


Using lessons to redesign the food system

Listening to and learning from the lived experience of those most affected by the pandemic is one of our main priorities. We also need to capture practical insights from organisations – especially where fundamental redesign has had to happen.

Throughout this, our effort weighs towards the medium-long term rather than urgent need. This is difficult when there is so much immediate need beyond the scope of our activity. Yet, COVID-19 is exposing how far the food system is designed and can be redesigned. 

New private-public partnerships are forming. Traditional ‘eligibility’ criteria for some services are being broadened as the crisis exposes broader needs. The logistics and impact of this work feel so important to capture.

We don’t want to lose the practical insights – from data, organisations and families themselves – that can inform a food system that narrows, rather than widens the gap in children’s access to good food.

And it’s not just the children’s health and food programme looking at the structural redesign and long-term reduction in health inequality. Next week, the Director of our multiple long-term conditions programme shares her thoughts on their adapted approach to supporting those most affected.