Linda Cregan ponders the recent national media narrative on children’s food
Research by large, high street companies and academics alike over recent weeks highlights much that is shocking and bizarre about children’s food. Whatever the respective agendas behind these various findings – commercial or altruistic – they continue to feed the mainstream media narrative.
And rightly so. When this drops out of the news, worry more. Malnutrition in all its ugly forms will finally have become a cultural norm and we will have become resigned to fatal indifference.
Instead, we are provoked by hard hitting facts. Commentary on a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month suggested we are sentencing children to death, as nine out of 10 were eating ‘dangerously high levels’ of salt. More than 40 per cent of the sodium children consume comes from what are typically their favourite foods, including pizza, sandwich meats, cheese, chicken nuggets and pasta dishes, says the report.
“We are sentencing all too many children to premature death from heart disease and stroke,” the news story quotes.
But do we fare any better in the UK? Last week, it was sugar. We – and that includes our children – are all consuming too much, say researchers from University College London and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They want sugar to be taxed, the threshold for what constitutes high sugar levels to be lowered, and vending machines offering confectionery and sugary drinks to be removed from places controlled by government, such as schools and hospitals.
Ahead of the new requirement for cooking to be in the school curriculum, Tesco is one of the supermarket giants focusing on children’s lack of cooking skills and basic understanding of healthy food. Each is underpinning their research findings with new activity programmes for children to help address this, such as Tesco’s Farm to Fork Cooking.
And behind all these issues lie the financial costs of relative inertia. With sugar intake a key culprit, treating dental problems costs between 5% and 10% of total health expenditure in industrial countries. And the NHS is staggering under an unsustainable burden of £5 billion a year to treat obesity-related illnesses.
So are we inert? Not at the Children’s Food Trust. It’s the reason we exist – to protect every child’s right to nutritious food. We’re seeing excellent results across all our work with early years settings, schools and directly with children and families.
The first 1,000 days of a child’s life from conception to a child’s second birthday are when a child most needs nutritious food, so our work with the early years sector is crucial. We’re training those who care for under-fives in how to provide food in line with the national guidelines, which we launched in 2012.
Focusing on children over five, whatever your politics about universal free provision, there’s no doubt school food – subject to national standards – are the wisest, healthiest option. Since the standards were introduced, on average school meals contain 30 per cent less sugar, salt and saturated fat and at least one portion of fruit and one portion of vegetables or salad per child per day. Although not impossible, it’s a huge effort for any parent to match that with a packed lunch.
And as for healthy cooking, we’ve been doing it and sharing it for years and the passion and fun it brings are infectious. Our national network of around 5,000 Let’s Get Cooking clubs has reached nearly 3 million people, and our evidence shows 92 per cent of those use their newly learned cooking skills at home. Let’s Get Cooking goes way beyond children to their families and communities, a diverse range of adult groups and even for employers into the work place.
So inertia has no place for us. As the media coverage will undoubtedly continue to show, there’s so much to do to help our children eat better, do better and reach their full potential. Let’s get busy sentencing children to life.
Linda Cregan is Chief Executive of the Children’s Food Trust