The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on household food security in the UK. Five million families have encountered food insecurity, and 200,000 children are missing meals every day.

Despite a campaign led by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, the UK government has voted against extending free school meals to children during the autumn half-term holiday and future holidays until Easter 2021. Rashford is now leading a concerted effort from councils, charities and businesses to provide free meals over the school holiday.

Holiday hunger” – when children go without the food normally provided to families during school term time – is an increasingly recognised issue. If children are not given the nutrition they need, there are long-term effects on their health.

Mind and body

In the short term, children who are living in food-insecure families are more likely to suffer from education losses. Research from the US showed that after the summer holidays, children had lost an average of one month’s worth of skills learned at school, and that poorer children may fare worst.

When children do not have enough to eat, they are less likely to achieve their developmental goals on time, or to achieve their potential at school.

Children experiencing food insecurity are more likely to suffer from anxiety and stress, and hunger in childhood has been linked to depression and suicidal episodes in teenagers. Hunger is also linked to increased levels of chronic illnesses such as asthma.

Children talking and eating packed lunches at a table
Free school meals are a vital resource for many families. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Children require essential nutrients from food, such as zinc, iron, selenium, protein and iodine, to support their brain growth. The supply of these nutrients affects the functioning adult the child will become.

Another vital nutrient is vitamin D, found in foods such as oily fish, red meat and egg yolks. Vitamin D is essential for bone growth in children, and it is linked to enhanced protection against illnesses by reducing inflammation and promoting immune function. Research has also shown that vitamin D may protect against respiratory illnesses. In the UK, it has been estimated that 16% of children do not have enough vitamin D.

Poor nutrition has an impact across generations. Mothers who are lacking in iron are more likely to have children who do not grow well during pregnancy and are born with low birth weight. These infants often have developmental problems and are more likely to suffer from infectious diseases and death in childhood.

Read more: Child malnutrition: lessons from the Victorian age

Mothers who were undernourished as children are also more likely to have underweight babies. The long-term impacts of low birth weight are stark, and include increased rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease and obesity. Research has also found a link between low birth weight and heart disease in adults.

Five a day

The government advises that children need to eat a balanced diet. This is set out in the Eatwell guidelines developed by Public Health England. The guidelines suggest eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Fruit and veg contain essential nutrients such as zinc and iron, which help the body grow and fight diseases.

The Eatwell guidelines.

For many families, though, meeting this target is not easy. In fact, a quarter of secondary school children in the UK eat less than one portion of fruit or vegetables a day.

In 2018, the Food Foundation charity published a report showing that following the Eatwell guide was likely to be unaffordable for families living on a low income. The report calculated that families earning less than £15,860 would need to spend 42% of their income (after housing) on food to meet the Eatwell guidelines.

The evidence is clear: children not eating a healthy diet will not perform as well at school as those who are well nourished. They are more likely to suffer from mental health problems such as stress, and as they age they will be more likely to suffer from diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

The coronavirus pandemic has left many parents struggling to feed their children. The UK is faced with the challenge of how to protect its most vulnerable population.