In a study [pdf] conducted by Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Lab, around half of UK children who received free school meal vouchers are reporting a significant drop in their intake of fruit and vegetables since schools closed in March. Just over half of students who would have received free meals at school stated they had eaten no fresh vegetables across a three-day period following the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown. Almost half reported having eaten no fruit in the same period, yet many reported a large increase in consumption of sugary drinks and snacks.

Researchers wanted to investigate what children entitled to free school meals would be eating when it became apparent that the United Kingdom was going to enter a period of lockdown and schools would be closing their doors to all but the most vulnerable pupils and children of key workers. Although the Department for Education implemented a shopping voucher scheme worth £15 per child per week in England to provide support for those children who would normally receive free school meals, many parents and schools reported a number of issues with the scheme. The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland chose to introduce alternative schemes.

The researchers worked with almost 60 children aged 9–12 in London and the North East of England who completed specially designed questionnaires on their eating, sleeping, and physical activity across six days. Data were collected on three consecutive days before, and three consecutive days during the lockdown.

The preliminary findings show a significant decrease in the number of fruit children have been eating. Before school closures, they ate, on average, just over one portion of fruit per day. During the three-day reporting period during the lockdown, almost half of the children (45%) said they had not eaten any fruit, with the remaining children eating an average of half a portion of fruit per day.

Similar results were seen in the children’s responses to the number of vegetables they had eaten. More than half of the children (55%) said they had not eaten any fresh vegetables during the three days during the lockdown. The mean vegetable intake dropped from just over two portions per day when children were attending school, to an average of half a portion per day at home.

However, a four-fold increase was reported in the amount of sugar-sweetened drinks consumed, together with a substantial rise in the number of chips, chocolates, and sweets being eaten. Children’s consumption of unhealthy snacks increased from an average of one over the three days when they were at school to six portions across three days at home during the lockdown.

The researchers also asked if the children had skipped any meals. Approximately 25% said they had skipped at least one meal a day prior to schools closing—usually their breakfast—and this increased to 35% following lockdown.

“The social and economic consequences of coronavirus are exposing millions of people in our country to hunger and malnutrition,” said Baroness Boycott, chair of the charity Feeding Britain, in a press release. “As these preliminary findings show, we need a seamless year-round program of nutritious meals for all children that incorporates school breakfasts and dinners, as well as a continuation of that service, alongside enriching activities, during the holiday periods.”

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