A healthy diet is too expensive for many UK families, peers say

The landmark report said children from poorer families are "condemned" to a life of ill health after successive Governments doing "precious little" about the problem

The UK’s food system and high poverty rates are putting Brits’ health at risk, a new report said, with the Government urged to take action immediately.

The Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food report, produced by the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, said low-income families are left with “little or no choice” about diet – forced to either go without meals or depend on unhealthy food because it is more affordable.

And it’s a problem the Government is well aware of, the peers said – with problems of diet and ill health “staring us in the face for decades” as low-income families continue to be deprived of the time or money to ensure they’re eating a healthy diet.

People in deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese as better-off families due to overpriced healthy foods, deepening the health divide between wealthy and poor.

This means it’s vital the Government establishes a national food strategy, they said, and ensures food initiatives like breakfast clubs are fully funded for children from low-income families.

And the way Britain manufactures food only exacerbates the problem, peers said. Ministers must put pressure on food manufacturers to cut down on sugar, salt and unhealthy fats in processed food, the report added, which could save the NHS billions.

Committee chair Lord Krebs said: “Problems of diet and ill-health have been staring us in the face for decades, but successive Governments have done precious little about it.  While this affects everyone, people in poverty either can’t afford enough to eat or have unhealthy diets.

“Many of Britain’s poorest families have little or no choice. They either go without food or buy unhealthy food because that’s what they can afford and get hold of.

“The Government knows about the problem. It’s time to stop the dither and delay, endless talking and consultation, and get on with it.”

The peers want ministers to analyse food insecurity in the UK, measuring the number of people experiencing it and why.

Soaring poverty before Covid-19 hit was causing an ever-increasing number of families to turn to foodbanks to eat. The crisis is only pushing more people into poverty, with foodbank use hitting a record high in the first month of lockdown – the Trussell Trust reported a nearly 90 per cent jump in demand for emergency food parcels while services across the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) stretched resources to meet the massive 175 per cent increase in the number of people who turned to them for help.

Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, said: “This landmark report clearly explains the raft of actions needed to tackle our nation’s dietary inequalities which have been highlighted so starkly by the Covid pandemic.

“This report shows that millions of families can’t eat well unless they have sufficient income and an environment which makes the healthy choice the easiest. People can no longer wait for lengthy government consultations which languish in Whitehall.”

She added: “Every day that passes where the odds are stacked against families securing a healthy diet is a missed opportunity to secure a healthy future for our children.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the Covid-19 crisis alone had pushed 200,000 children into poverty and that 4.5 million kids are expected to be experiencing it by Christmas.

She added: “This report should serve as an urgent wake-up call to the Government.

“Families should be able to access not only enough food, but also the food that they need to stay healthy.

“[The] Government must act now to implement a nationwide strategic plan to increase household incomes and release families from the shame and indignity of having to rely on foodbanks and food voucher schemes.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We currently spend a record £95 billion a year on our welfare system, with a further injection of £6.5 billion in response to the coronavirus outbreak. We are also giving an additional £63 million for local authorities to assist those most in need of food and essential supplies.

“The upcoming National Food Strategy will look at the entire food system, from field to fork, to ensure it delivers safe, healthy, affordable food, regardless of where people live or how much they earn.”