1. Magic Breakfast was established in 2001 by Carmel McConnell MBE in response to headteachers telling her that the biggest obstacle to them being able to teach was hunger among their pupils. Magic Breakfast forms partnerships with schools, working with them to ensure the most vulnerable children have access to a healthy meal, without barrier or stigma, at the start of the school day. We currently work with 480 schools in England and in Scotland feeding over 48,480 children each morning. We also partner with Family Action to implement the Department for Education funded programme, The National School Breakfast Programme (NSBP), in an additional 1,775 schools feeding 280,000 children each school morning.
2. As many as 1.8 million school age children in the UK are at risk of starting the day hungry. This figure is based on UNICEF data which indicates 19% of children under 15 are living in moderately or severely food insecure households, where parents and children are compromising the quality and quantity of the food they eat or skipping meals altogether[i].
3. Food insecurity has negative impacts on public health, correlating with obesity and poor mental health. There is significant evidence which demonstrates breakfast is key to a healthy diet for children and that breakfast can improve healthy eating habits and reduce obesity.
4. At present, the Government currently funds school breakfasts through the NSBP but the Government could go further providing a scaled up, national approach to school breakfast provision. Magic Breakfast recommends school breakfast legislation and additional funding for schools to provide a free healthy breakfast to children at risk of hunger.
What are the key causes of food insecurity in the UK? Can you outline any significant trends in food insecurity in the UK? To what extent (and why) have these challenges persisted over a number of years?
5. Food insecurity has not been routinely measured in the UK. As a result, there is insufficient data on the scale of the problem and its causes. According to End Hunger UK, household food insecurity is caused by a number of underlying factors including; the rising cost of living, insecure work, benefit inadequacy, lack of crisis support and inability to access benefits[ii].
6. Certain groups are also more vulnerable to food insecurity than others. Almost half of young mothers (aged 16-24) surveyed by Yong Women’s Trust reported regularly missing meals to provide for their children[iii]. A study by the Food Standards Agency found that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, food insecurity particularly affects the unemployed and those in the lowest income quartile[iv].
7. A significant number of children are also impacted by food insecurity with an estimated 1.8 million school age children in the UK being at risk of hunger[v]. Evidence indicates that food insecurity amongst children is getting worse. A survey carried out by the National Association of Head Teachers found that 81% of school leaders have seen a rise in the number of pupils arriving at school hungry in the last five years[vi]. In a Magic Breakfast partner school survey, 80% of teachers surveyed believed that child hunger had increased in their school community in the 2018-19 school year, and 70% believed that poverty had increased in the same period[vii].
8. The number of children at risk of hunger can also be influenced by the time of year. During the school holidays it is estimated that three million UK children are at risk of hunger. This estimate is made up of the one million children who, based on household income, receive free school meals (FSM) during term time, as well as an additional two million children from low income families that are considered ‘working poor’, yet ineligible for FSM[viii]. For many families school holidays mean increased costs due to the loss of FSM and child care, the loss of access to FSM alone can cost a family an additional £30-40 per child, per week[ix].
What are some of the key ways in which diet (including food insecurity) impacts on public health? Has sufficient progress been made on tackling childhood obesity and, if not why not?
Food Insecurity and Obesity
9. Children at risk of hunger often live in the lowest income families which face significant challenges to achieve a healthy diet within the constraints of tight budgets. The high costs of nutritious food, in the context of low budgets, can lead to households having to purchase food that is the most filling. This can mean reliance on cheap foods that are nutrient poor but calorie rich. The Food Foundation has estimated that households with children in the bottom two income deciles would have to spend 42% of disposable income (after housing) on food to meet the Government’s Eat Well Guide standards[x].
10. This contributes to children from the lowest income decile being disproportionately affected by obesity. Children aged 5 from the poorest income groups are twice as likely to be obese as their better off counterparts and by age 11 they are three times as likely to experience obesity[xi]. Although reducing childhood obesity amongst the poorest households is a priority for the Government, as outlined in the Childhood Obesity Plan for Action, further work needs to be done to address this issue.
Food Insecurity and Mental Health
11. Food insecurity has also been associated with emotional and psychological stress among children, which could exert a negative effect on mental health outcomes[xii]. A 2002 study carried out in the US aiming to assess the impact of hunger on children’s physical and mental health found that, compared with those with no experience of hunger, school age children with severe hunger were more likely to experience stressful life events, had higher parent-reported anxiety scores and were more likely to have behavioural problems than children with no experience of hunger[xiii]. A survey by the NHS similarly found that children living in households in the lowest 20% income bracket are more than twice as likely to develop mental health problems as those living in households in the highest 20% income bracket[xiv].
12. The need to address children’s mental health issues is pressing as a 2019 survey from the National Education Union found that 81% of primary teachers and 86% of secondary teachers reported an increase in the number of pupil mental health problems in the last two years[xv].
The Role of Breakfast
13. Evidence demonstrates that breakfast is a critical component of a healthy diet for children. A 2005 literature review of 25 studies that examined the association between breakfast consumption and children’s nutrition and body weight found that children who reported eating breakfast on a consistent basis tended to have better nutritional profiles than their peers who skipped breakfast. Breakfast eaters generally consumed more calories yet were less likely to be overweight. The review concluded that breakfast as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle can positively impact children’s health and wellbeing[xvi].
14. A 2019 systematic review of the association of skipping breakfast and weight and cardiometabolic risk factors in children and adolescents found similar results. The review analysed 39 separate studies across 33 countries covering 286, 804 children. Skipping breakfast was associated with being overweight or obese in 94.7% of subjects. Skipping breakfast was also associated with worse lipid profile, blood pressure levels, insulin-resistance, and metabolic syndrome. Five studies reported a lower quality dietary intake in children missing breakfast or “breakfast skippers”[xvii].
15. These studies are particularly relevant to the UK, given that recent UNICEF data indicates 19% of children are living in moderately or severely food insecure households. These households are reducing the quantity of food they eat, regularly skipping meals, and experiencing hunger. It is therefore likely that these children are regularly unable to access breakfast at the start of the day which, as described above, can result in significant, long-term negative health outcomes.
What can be learnt from food banks and other charitable responses to hunger? What role should they play?
16. Since 2001 Magic Breakfast has partnered with schools to ensure that children who arrive hungry are able to access a healthy free breakfast at the start of the school day. Evidence from our programmes demonstrates the positive impact breakfast can have on children’s health. This evidence should be used by Government to inform a scaled up, national approach to school breakfast provision.
17. Evidence from our programmes suggests school breakfast provision could play a significant role in tackling current levels of child obesity, particularly if breakfast provision is targeted towards disadvantaged children, at greatest risk of obesity. School breakfast provision can improve healthy eating habits, with a survey of Magic Breakfast partner schools noting that 90% of teachers had observed an improvement in children’s healthy eating habits since the establishment of a school breakfast provision[xviii]. One teacher remarked, “Many children have poor diets at home, some are overweight, and many have a high sugar diet, meaning they are at risk from developing all sorts of health issues later. Magic Breakfast helps to prevent this.”
18. The positive relationship between school breakfast provision and healthy eating is also evidenced by a study carried out by Northumbria University which examines Blackpool Council’s school breakfast initiative. Blackpool Council run a breakfast provision which ensures all primary school children in Blackpool have access to a free school breakfast. It is currently being delivered in 33 schools and reaching 11,000 children each morning. The evaluation found the programme had been effective at reducing breakfast skipping, with just 2.5% of evaluated children reporting skipping breakfast on the day of the survey[xix]. Overall, statistical analysis across the participating schools showed that children who attended the school breakfast consumed significantly more healthy items than children who did not attend school breakfast[xx].
19. School staff surveyed remarked, “[children] would often come into school and buy a can of pop on the way, crisps on the way and eat that for breakfast. I have not seen in months, children walking to school eating junk. I did see that before [school] breakfast came along”[xxi]. In improving healthy eating habits, breakfast provision has the potential to reduce current levels of child obesity, particularly amongst the poorest households.
20. As well as impacting on the physical health of children, school breakfast provision is also important for a child’s mental health. As outlined above, food insecurity can negatively impact a child’s mental health, however, providing access to a healthy breakfast can reduce experiences of food insecurity, leading to improved meatal health. 82% of teachers surveyed by Magic Breakfast reported they had observed improvements in children’s mental and emotional wellbeing as a result of school breakfast provision[xxii].
21. The role of charities in responding to food insecurity is important, but charities cannot end hunger alone. A national, Government led response is needed. The Government should take note of high impact programmes implemented by charities and consider how these proven approaches could be scaled up by Government. This is already happening to some extent with school breakfast provision. The Department for Education established the National School Breakfast Programme in March 2018 and has provided two charities, Magic Breakfast and Family Action, with funding to lead implementation. This programme is based on Magic Breakfast’s proven model of delivery and is now feeding well over 280,000 children each school morning.
A Public Health England report has concluded that “considerable and largely unprecedented” dietary shifts are required to meet Government guidance on healthy diets. What policy approaches (for example, fiscal or regulatory measures, voluntary guidelines, or attempts to change individual or population behaviour through information and education) would most effectively enable this? What role could public procurement play in improving dietary behaviours?
22. Scaled up, government led, school breakfast provision has the potential to contribute to the needed dietary shifts, particularly amongst children experiencing poverty and food insecurity.
23. The Government currently invests in school breakfast provision through the National School Breakfast Programme, reaching 1775 schools and feeding over 280,000 children each school day. The success achieved by the NSBP demonstrates the impact that free, healthy school breakfast provision can have on child hunger, health and wellbeing. Funding for the Programme can be extended for an additional 2 years but is currently scheduled to end in March 2020. With the current state of school funding, the majority of schools supported by the NSBP are very likely to need continued funding to maintain their free school breakfast provision in the short to medium term. In addition to the NSBP, Magic Breakfast is feeding 48,480 children – but we estimate that as many as 1.8m school age children are at risk of starting the day hungry. This indicates that the demand and need for school breakfast provision is far greater than the current reach of the NSBP.
24. Recommendation: As a first immediate step, the Government needs to commit to renewing funding for the NSBP at a level of £12m per year.
Further funding for NSBP is an important milestone towards children eating healthier diets and reducing child hunger. To improve children’s diets more widely and to end classroom morning hunger a scaled up, sustainable approach is needed.
25. Recommendation: In our most recent policy report, Making the Case for School Breakfasts[xxiii], we recommend that the Government introduces school breakfast legislation. This legislation would place a statutory requirement on schools to provide breakfast to pupils, if requested. This would require an amendment to the Education Act of 1996 and would bring school breakfast up to par with existing commitment to school lunches.
26. Recommendation: We recommend that the National Funding Formula is amended to include additional funding for schools to enable them to provide a free healthy breakfast to children at risk of hunger. This funding would be scaled to number of children on the school’s roll living in out of work or low-income households, as identified by the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index. Further information on these proposals in available in our policy report.
30 September 2019
[i] A Pereira, S Handa and G Holmqvist, “Prevalence and correlations of food insecurity among children across the globe,” UNICEF, June, 2017, https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/IWP_2017_09.pdf
[ii] Campaign Briefing. End Hunger UK, 2019.
[iii] “What Matters to Young Mums?” Young Women’s Trust, March, 2017.
[iv] “The Food & Your Survey,” Food standards Agency. 2017.
[v] A Pereira, S Handa and G Holmqvist, “Prevalence and correlations of food insecurity among children across the globe,” UNICEF, June, 2017, https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/IWP_2017_09.pdf
[vi] #NAHTconf: ‘Embarrased and ashamed’ the impact of austerity on England’s schoolchildren. National Association of Head Teachers. May, 2019. https://www.naht.org.uk/news-and-opinion/press-room/nahtconf-embarrassed-and-ashamed-the-impact-of-austerity-on-englands-schoolchildren/
[vii] Monitoring and Measuring, Magic Breakfast, 2019.
[viii] A Forsey, “Hungry holidays: A report on hunger amongst children during school holidays,” APPG Hunger. April, 2017, https://feedingbritain.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/hungry-holidays.pdf
[x] Affordable of the UK’s Eatwell Guide, Food Foundation, September, 2018, https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Affordability-of-the-Eatwell-Guide_Final_Web-Version.pdf
[xi] Childhood obesity: a plan for action, The UK Government, January, 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action
[xii] Kirkpatrich et al, Child hunger and long-term adverse consequences for health, August, 2010, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/383613
[xiii] Weinred et al, Hunger: It’s Impact on Children’s Health and Mental Health, October, 2002, https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/110/4/e41
[xiv] Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, NHS Digital, 2017, https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england
[xv] “The State of Education: Young People’s Mental Health”, The National Education Union, April, 2019, https://neu.org.uk/press-releases/state-education-young-peoples-mental-health
[xvi] Rampersaud et al. “Breakfast Habits, Nutritional Status, Body Weight, and Acdemic Performance in children and adolecents,” May, 2005, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15883552
[xvii] Monzani et al. A Systematic Review of the Association of Skipping Breakfast with Weight and Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Children and Adolecents. What should we better investigate in the future? February, 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30781797
[xviii] Monitoring and Measuring. Magic Breakfast, 2019.
[xix] Margret A. Defeyter and Pamela L. Graham, Examining the Impact of School Breakfast on Health, Wellbeing and Educational Engagement in a Sample of Schools in Blackpool. March 2013, http://democracy.blackpool.gov.uk/Data/Executive/201306171800/Agenda/Appendix%202a-Appendix%202a.pdf
[xxii] Monitoring and Measuring. Magic Breakfast, 2019.
[xxiii] Making the case for school breakfasts. Magic Breakfast, September 2019, https://www.magicbreakfast.com/news/policy-report