Food insecurity could permanently impact a child’s develop, research shows

More than a quarter of households with a child aged under four experienced food insecurity in January, according to campaigners.

A survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of charity the Food Foundation found that 27% of households with a child under the age of four experienced food insecurity in January 2023 – significantly higher than the 15% of households without children that were food insecure, and higher than households with only school-aged children (23%).

girl eating cereal in white ceramic bowl on table

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 – a phenomenon known as nutritional programming. Evidence also shows that experiencing household food insecurity during infancy and early childhood is linked to increased risk of obesity.

But the Food Foundation pointed to sluggish take-up of the government’s Healthy Start scheme, which is available to low-income pregnant women and mothers of children under four who are in receipt of qualifying benefits. The scheme provides vitamins and payments which can be used for foods to support basic nutrition, including fruit, veg, pulses, milk and formula milk.

The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) committed the NHS BSA, which operates Healthy Start on its behalf, to achieving 75% uptake by March 2023. However, government data shows that by March uptake of Healthy Start among eligible families was only 64%, falling well short of the target and far behind uptake levels for Scotland’s equivalent scheme, ‘Best Start Foods’, which was claimed by 88% of eligible parents and carers in 2021-22.

The Food Foundation called for improvements to tackle the low uptake of Healthy Start, which it attributed to families being unaware of the scheme’s existence or struggling with the application process.

The charity also called on the government to increase uptake by committing £5m to a communications campaign to improve awareness and uptake of Healthy Start, expanding eligibility for the scheme to all families on Universal Credit and equivalent benefits and including children aged four, and increasing the value of Healthy Start payments – while food prices have risen 18% in the last year, the value of Healthy Start payments has not risen at all.

Image: Providence Doucet


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