Growing up healthy and well-nourished is an essential part of a happy and fulfilling childhood. But right now, both in the UK and across the world, the coronavirus pandemic has led to rising numbers of children growing up without access to the food and nutrition they need to develop and thrive.
Families in the UK struggling to afford food
In the UK, in first two months of the pandemic, the use of food banks soared, especially among families with children. In April this year The Trussell Trust network gave out more than twice the number of food parcels as in the same month last year. Parents we work with told us at the time that hits to their income, combined with rising food bills due to having children at home all day, meant it was increasingly difficult for them to provide the food they needed for themselves and their children.
Six months on from the beginning of the pandemic, for many families the situation has got worse. Our research published last week found that, in the last two months alone, almost a third of parents on low incomes has had to cut back on food for themselves or their children, with one in five turning to a food bank. Over a quarter said they found it harder to afford the food they needed now compared with April 2020 – and this is set to get worse in the winter months.
“A lot of the time I just eat what they’ve left over. I can’t remember the last time I did a shop where I bought meals for me. I eat a lot of toast – that’s it really.” Sophie*, responding to our survey
As winter approaches, further lockdown restrictions combined with rising costs of heating, energy, clothes and other essentials mean that families will face further pressures on their already tight budgets. And from April next year, millions of families are set to see their incomes reduced by £1,000 per year as the temporary increase to Universal Credit comes to an end – meaning even more families will be plunged into hardship.
Global progress under threat
Over the past two decades, there has been progress in tackling malnutrition for the world’s children. But now, the impact of the pandemic looks set to undo that progress and make things worse. Early estimates suggest an additional 6.7 million children with acute malnutrition in 2020. Access to good, nutritious food is vital for all children to grow and develop. But with rates of poverty increasing as a result of the pandemic, more families are struggling to afford it. 150 million additional children are living in poverty because of the pandemic. Without action from governments, the number of children who are hungry will only rise.
There are early signs that the UK government is ready to react. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) announced plans to lead global action to protect those living in poverty from famine. However, nutritious food is only part of the solution to malnutrition.
“The thing which I would like to tell them [leaders] are about the issues related to food security and health services. They should try to extend such facilities even in this quarantine and after quarantine because many people are dying in this situation due to starvation and lack of health services.” 17-year-old boy from Nepal.
So, what else helps? Supporting breastfeeding is important. So is ensuring children get vitamin supplements if they are not getting enough in their diets. Keeping children free from worms, so they can absorb the nutrients they are consuming also matters. As does promoting access to water, good hygiene and good health. And when this is not enough and children still become malnourished, we need to diagnose it quickly and treat it with things such as ready-to-use therapeutic food.
What can the UK government do?
In the UK: We’re advocating for a Winter Plan for Children to support families to cover essential costs and ensure that no child goes hungry through the winter months and beyond. Specifically, we’re calling on the UK government to:
- make the temporary uplift to Universal Credit permanent, so that families don’t face losing £1,000 per year from April, and extend this to legacy benefits
- provide a £10 per week minimum boost to benefits for families with children
- pay childcare costs upfront to prevent families from being pushed into debt
- adopt the recommendations set out in the National Food Strategy to make sure that no child is at risk of going hungry through the winter and beyond.
Around the world: The UK is one of the most respected donors in the world on nutrition. Its work was recently independently reviewed and it scored well. It surpassed its target of reaching 50 million people with nutrition programmes. But its commitment to tackling malnutrition expires at the end of this year. At a moment when the world needs leadership more than ever, for the UK to walk away or scale back on ambition will be devasting. We’re therefore calling on the FCDO to:
- invest £120 million per year in programmes that aim to reduce malnutrition
- focus £680 million per year of funding for non-nutrition programmes on tackling the underlying causes of malnutrition
- commit to reach at least 50 million children, women and adolescent girls with nutrition programmes.
For all the chaos of 2020, malnutrition remains a long-term problem as well as an immediate threat. Our response to it must be address both by overcoming the immediate challenge while still investing to build long-term systems.
And while the situation in the UK is very different to that of developing nations, many families in here are struggling to access the food they need.
The UK government urgently needs to make sure that nutrition services and access to nutritious food are prioritised both at home and abroad. That way children, wherever they live, will have the chance to fulfil their potential.
* Name changed to protect identity.