And it is only getting worse. A new report from the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) has found food banks are seeing “a lot more parents with very young children” and are having to work on policies to support them where “this was previously never needed”.
Around 45 per cent of food banks saw a rise in the number of parents and carers seeking support to feed their babies between December 2022 and January 2023 compared to the same two-month period a year ago.
“A growing number of parents and carers are struggling to feed their babies with devastating consequences,” said Sabine Goodwin, the coordinator of IFAN, which works with food banks across the country to address common challenges. “Independent food banks and health visitors are overstretched and overwhelmed.”
Food banks have repeatedly warned of reaching “breaking point” over the last 12 to 18 months and Goodwin says they cannot continue to be relied on as the main source of support for people where the social security system has failed.
It comes as new research from the Food Foundation revealed 27 per cent of households with a child under the age of four experienced food insecurity in January 2023. This is almost double the number of households without children, where 15 per cent were food insecure.
The Food Foundation is calling on the government to act as “children’s earliest experiences of food can shape lifelong habits and establish their long-term relationship with food” and “lack of sufficient nutrition during critical periods in early life may cause irreversible changes to development, and therefore increase risk of chronic disease in later life”.
When mothers can’t afford to feed themselves adequately, they can struggle to breastfeed. And the rising cost of formula is also a barrier to feeding babies. This is forcing increasing numbers of parents and carers of infant children to make impossible decisions, according to IFAN.
Figures from First Steps Nutrition Trust show that between March 2021 and November 2022, the most widely available and purchased infant formulas increased in cost by between 15 and 23 per cent. And the cost of the cheapest available and only ‘own brand’ formula (Aldi’s Mamia) increased by 33 per cent.
The first year of a baby’s life has a profound impact on their development and long-term health.
Babies and young children are more vulnerable to food borne illness than adults, so ignoring best-before dates, switching off fridges and freezers, and cutting corners in the preparation of powdered infant formula can be detrimental.
Dr Vicky Sibson, director of First Steps Nutrition, said: “Not only are babies and young children most at risk of food insecurity, but they are also the most vulnerable nutritionally. To stay well, grow properly, develop and learn, they need nutritious diets. With sky-rocketing food price inflation, these diets will be more expensive and less accessible than ever.”
Earlier this week, it was revealed that the government had missed its target to increase the take-up of NHS healthy food vouchers aimed at vulnerable parents of young children.
The Healthy Start scheme was designed to help low income pregnant women and parents of young children pay for fruit, vegetables, milk, and baby milk powder. But just 64 per cent of eligible parents in England, Wales and Northern Ireland claimed Heathy Start vouchers at the end of March. According to the Food Foundation, the government’s target was 75 per cent.
Anna Taylor, executive director of The Food Foundation, said: “Debilitating food price rises are making it incredibly challenging for low-income young families to afford a healthy diet. This is extremely concerning given how important good nutrition is for young children’s growth and development.
“Healthy Start is a highly-targeted scheme that should be helping families most in need, but pitifully low uptake levels mean there are families all over the country who are missing out on this statutory scheme. Much more needs to be done by the government to make sure uptake improves – implementing the recommendations set out in the National Food Strategy is a good place to start.”
Goodwin added: “Healthy Start vouchers are insufficient and hard to access. Above all, social security payments and wages must match the real cost of living. Meanwhile, it’s critical that immediate support is provided to people struggling to feed their infants by way of cash payments, vouchers or purchased formula alongside advice and support to maximise income.”
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