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A child’s-eye view on food and COVID-19: the imperative to build back better

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Bite Back 2030 James Toop blog

This blog was originally published on Nutrition Connect on 17/04/20, as part of a blog series on opportunities for building back better food systems and nutrition.

It’s Monday 10am, week three of lockdown in the UK.  Craig has just got up in his flat in South London.  His four younger brothers and sisters have been up for ages, but what’s the point.  He is 15 and his GCSEs have just been cancelled.  He doesn’t know when he’s going back to school.  Exams were his motivation; his chance to prove what he could do.

At first it was fun, a novelty not to be at school.  He went out on his bike every day, ate meals with his parents and siblings for once.  But now he’s bored.  He is lonely, missing his friends. He’s lost his old routine and is now not sleeping well, getting up later, playing XBox, snacking in his room and not going out at all, even for the allowed exercise.

The Covid-19 lockdown represents the greatest social experiment for the food system young people will ever have experienced. 

On the one hand it’s a nirvana for health campaigners.  The impact of the virus on commercial health determinants has created a healthier food environment overnight: fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Chicken Shops are closed; this is causing online delivery app sales like Deliveroo to drop; the casual dining sector is in a ‘drastic Darwinian environment’ (Financial Times); and for the first time in years, junk food has lost its place in the spotlight with advertising on TV and social media significantly down.  Home cooking programmes and family meals are now the norm. 

But for many young people like Craig, life just got a whole load harder.  The regular free hot meal he relied on at school is no longer available.  He queued at the supermarket with his Dad last week but the shelves were empty. His Mum’s work has dried up so getting enough food to last through the week is tight.  It’s hard to find fresh, healthy produce in supermarkets, so he goes to local shops but they are a whole load more expensive.

Bite Back 2030 James Toop blog

Healthy food, fresh fruit and vegetables will get harder and harder to access.  Some families are unsure what will be on the shelves from one day to the next so they are stocking up on long-life, ultra-processed food.  Other families are unsure what they will be able to afford from one day to the next, so they are buying cheaper, long-lasting, lower quality food.

At the extreme end this turns into food poverty and insecurity.  And it is on the rise.  Nearly 1m people signed up for Universal Credit in the first two weeks of UK lockdown.  There is some help - many schools are still serving hot meals and the others now offer a £15 weekly supermarket voucher.  But it’s eligible in Marks & Spencers and Waitrose and not Coop and Aldi.  Support for food banks has risen exponentially but many donations are typically unhealthy food that wealthier people don’t want like packets of Angel Delight or tins of beans, rather than healthy, nutritious food that poorer families struggle to access.

Our most important priority right now should be to ensure that our young people, especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, can access healthy food.  Without it, there’s a high likelihood childhood obesity rates will rise through this period.

Bite Back 2030 James Toop blog

So what can we do?

  • Firstly, we need to keep telling stories of the young people affected so we can increase awareness, funding and support with the public, food industry and government - for example, here in the UK, the government recently agreed to fund the £15 supermarket vouchers through the Easter holidays after campaigns from school leaders and NGOs.
  • Secondly, we must continue to harness the power of our collective bottom-up action in schools and communities to make sure we all do whatever we can to increase access to healthy food for our most vulnerable young people - this could be healthy donations to food banks, cooking meals for local families or supporting schools.
  • Thirdly, we need to track what is happening, listen out for the injustices that strike us now and tell those stories.  We are in a ‘new normal’ that makes the injustices that our poorest experience every day even more apparent to us all - for example, when none of us can go outside or our regular abundance of food is eradicated we are more likely to think about what it must be like for Craig living in his flat in South London with no garden and struggling to get enough food for the week. 

We must capitalise on this moment of heightened awareness and real change to the food environment to leverage positive, lasting change for our most vulnerable.  If we get it wrong, Covid-19 risks causing a further long-term health burden on a generation of young people.  If we get it right, we can manage access to healthy food through lockdown and seize the opportunity to come out the other side of the pandemic with a plan to change our food system and build back better.

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