Tackling childhood food poverty in the UK

Download or view the full policy brief: Tackling childhood food poverty in the UK

Brief 4, 09 Dec 2020. Bernadette Moore and Charlotte Evans.

Brief summary

Actions are needed from national government and local authorities to reduce reliance on emergency food provision, improve take-up of eligible financial support, and develop sustainable food system resilience in diverse communities. Reducing childhood poverty brings life-long benefits to health and wellbeing, with economic benefits to society.


  • A panel of experts was convened to examine current efforts aimed at mitigating childhood food poverty as part of the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub launch.
  • Childhood food poverty leads to poor health and educational outcomes. Families and the wider social context early in childhood must be considered.
  • Cost-benefit analyses show positive economic and social benefits to early years interventions and reducing childhood and adolescent hunger.
  • Implementation of the recommendations from the National Food Strategy to expand eligibility for free school meals including breakfast will narrow inequalities in health and educational attainment.
  • Local authorities need to increase access to high quality, affordable food alongside offering programmes that empower families in diverse communities to live independently with dignity.

Policy context

In 2019 an estimated 30%, or 4.2 million, of children in the UK were living in poverty (Moore & Evans, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a quadrupling of food insecurity in families, increasing applications for free school meals and the use of foodbanks and food charities. 

The National Food Strategy, released in July 2020, made several recommendations to mitigate childhood food poverty (Dimbleby 2020). The Government’s COVID Winter Grant Scheme and decisions to increase Healthy Start payments and extend the Holiday Activities and Food programme through 2021 are very welcome. However, longer-term strategies and bold actions are now required both nationally and by local authorities to reduce reliance on emergency food provision and develop sustainable food system resilience in the UK.

Childhood hunger has social and economic consequences

Poverty and poor diets are inextricably linked and lead to poor health outcomes such as obesity and nutrition-related chronic diseases (Moore & Evans, 2020; Evans et al. 2018). Maternal health and the first 1000 days of life critically sets the foundation for children’s health and wellbeing, influencing their development and future risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Unhealthy food behaviours formed in the context of childhood hunger endure into later life. Conversely early intervention programmes can lead to healthier family routines (Willis et al 2016) that improve life-long health outcomes. 

The social consequences of childhood poverty, such as higher unemployment or lower earnings, come at significant economic cost. The knock-on economic and fiscal costs of child poverty to the Treasury were estimated at £6 billion in 2015, with an additional £9 billion lost to individuals considered as a reduction in GDP (Bramley et al 2016). An additional £29 billion per year is spent on health care treating the diseases more commonly associated with poverty (Bramley et al 2016).  Cost-benefit analyses have demonstrated that the benefits of early years programmes to educational attainment, reduced involvement in crime, life-long health and social, emotional and economic wellbeing, far outweigh their costs (Greater London Authority Economics, 2011). 

Adequate nutrition is essential to educational attainment

Childhood food poverty negatively impacts cognitive development, mental health and physical wellbeing, all of which affect educational attainment. The universal provision and take up of free school meals has been shown to increase consumption of nutritious foods and improve attainment for primary school pupils, with the largest gains seen for disadvantaged children. Extensive research has also shown attainment benefits to children from breakfast consumption (Adolphus et al 2013; Adolphus et al 2019).

The cost of holiday meals and lifting the income caps for eligibility for free school meals would cost the country an extra £500 million/year (Farquharson, 2020), compared to the £14.5 billion removed from the social security budget since 2010 (Tucker, 2017). 

Broader community actions needed 

The provision of free school meals and emergency food provision (foodbanks) is not enough to lift those in poverty alone. Communities need increased access to affordable housing and opportunities for secure employment. Programmes are needed that support families and offer clear information on eligible benefits, particularly for those working part time. Childcare as a barrier for parents/carers who want to return to work must also be addressed. 

The lack of national policies regulating the density of fast-food outlets or food retail access more generally, was highlighted as leading to both a glut of unhealthy options and healthy-food deserts existing side by side in deprived communities (Patterson & Rushton, 2020). Action is needed from national government as well as local authorities in order to meet the needs of diverse communities. 



  • Implementation of all the recommendations from the National Food Strategy
  • More financial support for local authorities for measuring food insecurity, improving food access, and increasing food resilience and sustainability
  • Increase in family-centred support focussed on increasing household income to empower families to live independently

Local authorities

  • Prioritise early start interventions that foster healthy pregnancies and healthy food and lifestyle behaviours in young families
  • Increase access to high quality & affordable housing
  • Increase access to campaigns offering clear information on rules surrounding housing and benefits eligibility and empower people back to work
  • Target funding to primary and secondary schools for schemes such as free school breakfasts, or those that imbed sustainable solutions such as redistributing surplus food to Schools

About the authors

Bernadette Moore is an expert in obesity related metabolic disease and leads the Nutritional Sciences and Epidemiology Research Group in the School of Food Science and Nutrition.

Charlotte Evans is Associate Professor of Nutritional Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Leeds, researching the importance of school food on diet and health.

To cite this policy brief, please reference: Moore, JB and Evans, C (2020) Tackling childhood food poverty in the UK. Brief 4, Policy Leeds, University of Leeds. https://doi.org/10.5518/100/54

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