The government has been accused of ignoring “staggering” for the basic nutrition of the most vulnerable members of society during the pandemic by a group of leading food policy academics.
A letter written by Tim Lang, professor of food policy at the City University of London, was sent at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis to George Eustice, state secretary for environmental, food and rural affairs, and Duncan Selbie, chief executive officer of British Public Health.
It calls for the creation of an expert committee on food and nutrition to oversee the contents of food packages sent to the 1.5 million people needed to protect during the pandemic and to 1.3 million children who are eligible for free school meals. The letter was signed jointly by Erik Millstone, emeritus science policy professor at the University of Sussex, and Terry Marsden from Cardiff University. They proposed a committee that would reflect the work of Sage, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, who had informed government policies during the crisis.
In its response Defra said that PHE “is responsible for public health and the effect of nutrition on our immune system”. In turn, PHE responded that the problem raised was “for the minister”. As a result, none of the governments that believe in themselves are responsible for overseeing nutrition.
Lang described the response as “surprising”. “This shows the disturbing failure to put nutrition right at the heart of the policy. “It’s stupid and shows a poor understanding of how inequality is emphasized in a crisis,” he said.
Many of those who receive free food packages, provided by food service companies, Brakes and Bidfood, note that although they contain fresh fruits and vegetables, they are rich in simple carbohydrates and low in protein. When schools are closed and children who qualify for free school meals are given a food service company package, concerns also arise about their contents.
Peter Overton, an elementary school principal in Bristol, posted a picture of one to Twitter, describing it as “embarrassing”. Most were chips, chocolate biscuits, a cheap slice of bread, and a block of fat marked only for cooking.
Earlier this month the Northumbria University Healthy Living Lab reported a massive decrease in fruit and vegetable intake among students who qualify for free school meals. More than half of the children studied said they did not eat fruit or vegetables in a period of three days after being locked.
Funding for free school meals is now through a £ 15 weekly voucher per child, which can be spent at designated retailers. Last week a campaign by Manchester United and English soccer player Marcus Rashford forced the government to extend policies during the summer holidays. While this turnaround is welcomed by child poverty activists, there is increasing concern about the nutritional value of food eaten by the poorest families.
“There is a real danger that without some kind of supervision we lose focus on basic nutrition,” said Naomi Duncan, chief executive at Chefs School, a charity working to improve school food, which supported 850 families during the crisis. “The voucher scheme is a financial solution, not a nutritional solution. “There is a 30-year struggle to get better nutrition at the heart of school food supply and there is a risk of being lost,” he said.
In his response to Lang, Defra argues that “leading supermarkets work to ensure people have the food and products they need”. Lang described this as a key problem. “That is the Tesco approach,” he said. “This shows the weakness of British Public Health.”
In a statement, PHE said that any decision about forming an advisory committee on nutrition “would belong to the ministers”. Defra declined to comment.