Food Policy and Education – a joined up approach to Malnutrition and Food Poverty

News headlines today highlight the extent of malnutrition in the UK and the comprehensive Fabian Commission Report “Hungry For Change ” details the extent of the problem and the need to create a food system that works better for people on low incomes. It calls for the government to put in place a strategy to combat food poverty and the resulting malnutrition. NHS statistics show that 7,366 people were admitted to hospital with a diagnosis of malnutrition between August 2014 and July 2015. However, one could argue that those statistics could vary depending on the definition of malnutrition used.

Most people think of malnutrition as poor nutrition and in its most life threatening form it is often associated with images of starving children in underdeveloped countries with kwashiorkor or marasmus and protruding ribs.Yet malnutrition, can be linked to the over-consumption of food and conditions such as obesity, diabetes and under consumption of food and its ill effects such as deficiency diseases such as rickets, anemia and scurvy.

One of the five key principles that undermines the report is that “the links between low-income and diet-related ill-health should be broken” and in order to do this 14 comprehensive action points have been proposed among them being the suggestion that ” the environment secretary should broaden the focus of the 25 year plan for food and farming. The plan should include steps to access affordable, healthy and sustainable food for all those on low incomes and the skills and knowledge to properly enjoy such food”.

The report also acknowledges that “schools play a significant role in shaping food behaviours” a point that I as a food teacher would totally agree with and would like to reiterate in this blog.
Schools play a fundamental role in educating our youth about food choice and consumption, yet some children arrive in our schools hungry, without breakfast the fuel needed to help them to learn and develop; without food a basic human right. Others grab a quick convenient sugar filled drink on route to schools when in fact complex carbohydrates and proteins would be more suitable for creating satiety and improving concentration and indeed overall well-being.

Malnutrition in pupils often leads to irritability, tiredness, inability to concentrate among may other signs and symptoms and ultimately leads to lack of progress within an educational setting. How can we begin to expect children who are poorly nourished to have the energy required to process the information given to them in many forms in our schools?

We are constantly bombarded with reports on one hand of world hunger, food insecurity, food poverty and food waste and on the other concerns raised over the over consumption of food and conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The messages that are sent out to the public in various media forms can be somewhat concerning or indeed overwhelming. Food Education can empower people to make informed choices when purchasing ingredients and food products and about how to apply dietary messages in a practical way.

The report also rightly acknowledges that people on a low-budget can seek out affordable nutritious foods if they can cook and that the reality is that there is no evidence to suggest that cooking and purchasing skills are worse in low-income households than in the rest of the population. However, higher income families households can use their ” purchasing power ” to buy a more nutritious diet even if their cooking skills are poor.

A leader in the field of encouraging people to eat cheaply is a young lady Jack Monroe.Her writing career began by blogging about eating on a budget and subsequently she has published books in this area among them being ” a girl called Jack ” ; a book which I often use with my pupils to prepare nutritious yet non expensive meals. Similar tips and messages are shared with food students in schools throughout the UK in food lessons and similarly in community based health, cooking and enrichment programmes.

Food education when applied with confidence, knowledge and the appropriate skills can teach people :

To understand which nutrients are needed during various life stages for optimum health.
To eat complex carbohydrates and protein to increase satiety.
To make informed choices regarding their dietary intake.
To prioritize healthy eating.
To budget for food shopping.
To grow your own food.
To eat food which are plentiful and in season and therefore cheaper to buy.
To use leftovers in a productive way.
To prepare meat free recipes which can be cheaper.
To recognize the benefits of cooking meals with reasonably priced store cupboard ingredients.
To access nutritional information and resources.
To plan menus.
The technical and practical skills needed to prepare meals.
To recognize the difference between emotional and physical hunger.
To practice mindful eating.
To understand the link between dietary practices and physical, social and emotional health.
To eat together as a family and its importance.

etc , etc I could go on!
Food education can be targeted at a range of dietary groups including those such as men in their 60’s or over 80 or among women in their 40’s and 50’s , groups according to the Department of Health who are at most of risk of hospital admissions for malnutrition. Ideally, food education should be taught to all life stages as they age as our energy and nutritional needs vary according to our age and activity levels.Therefore, providing people with the knowledge and skills needed to look after their well-being at various stages in life would seem like a sensible way to not only tackle food poverty but indeed to combat and prevent many dietary related illnesses.

Yet, one could argue that the government are giving the general public mixed messages about the importance of food education in the UK.Paradoxically, the government are introducing a robust and challenging food curriculum at GCSE called Food Preparation and Nutrition yet have made the shock announcement that they plan to abolish food education at A level.If food education is removed at A level how then will out future generations be educated to look after their diets at this crucial age and where will young people of this age be inspired to pursue careers areas such as dietetics, nutrition which can improve the health of our nation? Who will actually be qualified to teach people about food and health in a practical way?

As Lindsay Graham, School Health Policy Officer rightly pointed out on BBC breakfast news this morning the government need comprehensive policy on food poverty and one which is joined up. I purpose that A level food is reinstated to help not only in the fight against food poverty and hunger but also as a preventable health strategy for a range of dietary related conditions.

Dianne Jeffery, who chairs the malnutrition Task Force believes that much malnutrition is preventable and that the rise in hospital admission for malnutrition is ” deeply depressing” ( Independent 28.10. 16)

I couldn’t agree more.

As a nation we need to look at two basic human rights ; the right to food and the right to education.Combine the two and we may just find a solution to many of our problems! Let’s join together to prevent Malnutrition in the future while treating it in the present.

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