“There should be no such thing as an underfed school child: an underfed child is a disgrace and a danger to the state” (Maud Pember Reeves, 1913).
One hundred years after the publication of Maud Pember Reeves’ well known study of food poverty in Lambeth the problem of want among plenty is as pervasive as ever.
Public health minister Anna Soubry claims it is easy to identify the poorest people in society by their weight and that poorer children are “ironically” more likely to be obese. Ms Soubry is right to link the issues of food, health and poverty. She is also correct in suggesting that over the last century what it means to be a malnourished child has changed in some important ways. The most alarming fact is not the supposed paradox that the poorest children are more likely to be overweight, however; given the easy availability of high fat and high sugar fast and convenience foods it should come as no surprise that the obesogenic environment we live in is reflected in the bodies of our children.
What is really shocking is the shameful response of successive governments to this problem: in 2013 children from the poorest households still do not have enough of the right foods to eat to ensure good health. Blaming parents and “TV dinners” reveals a failure to engage constructively with the evidence about children, food and poverty. At the heart of the problem, as much research has shown, are the issues of food availability and social inequality.
Analysis of data from the Millennium Cohort Study has investigated factors associated with childhood overweight and obesity (PDF). A number of significant factors have been identified, including relationships with maternal overweight, lack of breastfeeding and lack of exercise. At age 5, children living in a family with a lower household income, and/or having a mother with a lower level of education, were at greater risk of being overweight.
Researchers have shown that, even with optimal nutritional knowledge, choosing a healthy diet on a low food budget is difficult (PDF). As analysis of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey conducted by Antonia Simon and Charlie Owen at the Thomas Coram Research Unit shows, children in families where the household is in the highest socio-economic group have a higher nutritional score (i.e. healthier diet) and consume more portions of combined fruit and vegetables than children in families in households from lower socio-economic groups. With widening income disparity in Austerity Britain and “the end of cheap food”, these effects are doubtless being exacerbated.
Policy makers have not seen redistribution of wealth to be part of the solution. Equally, big food business, representing one of our currently few successful industries in Britain, wields its power internationally and in policy-making circles at home. It is therefore unsurprising that the government finds it preferable to regulate parents rather than the food industry. Those organisations, such as Sustain’s Children’s Food Campaign and the Children’s Food Trust, which are doing their best to safeguard children’s interests in this climate, deserve our support. Nevertheless, the slowness of government to take responsibility for the wellbeing of its most vulnerable citizens, as disgraceful and dangerous as it was a century ago, has to be addressed.
Dr Rebecca O¹Connell and Professor Julia Brannen are researchers at Thomas Coram Research Unit. Rebecca is also co-convenor of the British Sociological Association Food Study Group, which holds hour long seminars and longer, themed, events throughout the UK. The aim is to provide a forum for stimulating debate amongst academics, practitioners and others interested or involved in social science research on food, diet and eating.
Its next event, held at the University of Westminster, is a seminar by Professor Rose Barbour (Open University): “Food for thought: Some tensions between sociology and health promotion in relation to obesity”. Further details can be found here: http://www.britsoc.co.uk/study-groups/foodscoff-(scottish-colloquium-on-food-and-feeding).aspx