Child food insecurity
In the UK, 10% of children face severe food insecurity, a problem worsened by COVID-19. Free school meals (FSMs) are crucial in combating this issue.
School meals help reduce dietary inequalities and improve health, particularly among disadvantaged children. However, when schools closed due to COVID-19 in 2020, FSM access became limited, putting low-income families at risk of increased food insecurity and negative health consequences.
Longitudinal population studies used:
The research reveals that nearly half of children eligible for free school meals during the first month of lockdown did not receive any FSM entitlement. While access to FSMs was not associated with household members going hungry but being unable to eat, those who did access FSMs were 14 times more likely to have used a food bank recently. This indicates that FSM vouchers did not fully replace in-school meals.
Use of food banks in this group reveals an inadequacy of government welfare schemes to protect vulnerable, low-income families in the UK from food insecurity. Preliminary findings from a study comparing dietary intake at lunch before and after the school closures suggests FSM-eligible children had reduced dietary quality during the COVID-19 lockdown.
3Disseminating research findings to different audiences:
Parnham, J.C., Laverty, A.A., Majeed, A. & Vamos, E.P. (2020). Half of children entitled to free school meals did not have access to the scheme during COVID-19 lockdown in the UK Public Health, 187.
Outcomes and impact
The findings of this research were primarily disseminated through an academic ‘short communication’—a brief article published in an academic journal. The main author also published a blog, which further summarised the research for a non-specialist audience.
The article has gained significant attention within the academic community and has been widely cited by further research in the UK and internationally. It has also been cited as evidence feeding into policy and public debates around the issue of child food insecurity during the pandemic.
Academic attention and citations
While the research was not explicitly disseminated in the form of a direct submission to government or parliament, the original paper has been cited in policy reviews (COVID-19 Marmot Review) and research briefings in this area (UK Parliament POSTnote). It has also fed into the Food Standards Agency’s review under its food security area of research interest (ARI), which will inform its future priorities and guidance on FSM provision.
Policy reviews, research briefings and ARI research
The findings of the research were quickly picked up by news agencies, such as Human Rights Watch. The research became part of a national conversation and the issue rose further to prominence following England footballer, Marcus Rashford’s high-profile campaign to extend FSM provision to children during the school holidays.
Use of social media platforms generated greater awareness of the research and the wider issue of food insecurity amongst children from low-income families.