Latest findings from the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for England show sharp rises in childhood obesity and widening health inequalities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has consistently highlighted the health inequalities across the country. The widening gap between children growing up from the most and least affluent backgrounds is borne out in the latest NCMP findings. Reception children in the most deprived areas are almost three times as likely to be living with obesity than those in the least deprived areas.
The economic damage from the pandemic such as job losses and reduced pay, combined with increasing prices, has significantly impacted poorer families. This, combined with the fact that it was already more expensive to eat healthily than unhealthily, is only making it more difficult for children from low-income communities to access the same opportunities as their wealthier counterparts.
As the pandemic has increased screen time, junk food companies have had increased opportunities to shine the spotlight on their unhealthy products. Our friends at BiteBack2030 have revealed that over seven in ten YouTube channels for kids advertise products high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS). Concerningly, tech companies are shining an even brighter light on HFSS products for those children from low-income communities. Young people in the ten least affluent constituencies are twice as likely to be marked by Facebook as having an interest in fast food than those in the ten most affluent.
The unfairness in targeted advertising is correlated with unfair outcomes for children. 20.3% of Reception children in the most deprived areas are living with obesity, compared with 7.8% in the least deprived. In Year 6, these numbers increase to 33.8% and 14.3%.
The 2020/21 NCMP found obesity prevalence has increased in Reception from 9.9% last year to 14.4% this year, and in Year 6 from 21% to 25.5%. While the pandemic made data collection difficult with so few children attending school, data quality investigations find the data are representative and the results are broadly comparable with previous exercises. This means that, although the past two years have been extraordinary, still not enough is being done to ensure our children can access the nutritious start in life they need.
While government interventions such as the ban on junk food advertising online and on post-watershed TV are welcome, further action is needed. Given that during term time children consume as much as half of their food at school, a great place to start would be the school dining hall. School food is one way to ensure all children have access to at least one quality, nutritious meal each weekday. More children must have access to this, particularly those whose parents receive the recently cut universal credit.
As the Government talks about ‘levelling up’, it is key that these health disparities are addressed. Access to enough, nutritious food should be available no matter where a child lives. School food provides an opportunity for healthy interventions and respite from the onslaught of junk food that many low-income neighbourhoods face. The Government would be wise to consider this latest data when responding to the National Food Strategy and use the opportunity to reform school food policy.