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Greater entitlement to free school meals would reduce stigma, shame ­– and hunger

Blog Editor, IOE Digital5 June 2017

Rebecca O’Connell, Julia Brannen and Abigail Knight
The Conservative Manifesto proposes to end free school meals for all at key stage 1 and instead offer primary children free breakfast. What impact would this have?
For more than a century the UK government has provided free school meals (FSM) to children whose education might otherwise suffer. Today, school meals are a particular priority for children’s wellbeing, especially for the nearly 4 million children living in poverty. This is because of rising food prices, reduced household incomes – particularly for families with children – and cuts to the welfare benefit system. Recent research suggests that young people are not benefiting fully from free school meals because of issues of eligibility, adequacy and delivery.
Our ongoing study of 45 young people aged 11-15 and their parents in low income (more…)

The point is, Minister, the poorest children do not have enough of the right foods to keep them healthy

Blog Editor, IOE Digital25 January 2013

Rebecca O’Connell and Julia Brannen
“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

Working mums or lazy assumptions – who’s to blame in the food debate?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital2 May 2012

Rebecca O’Connell
As a full-time employed mother of three school aged children and a social anthropologist whose research focuses on the intersection between work and care I have a personal as well as professional interest in food, families and paid work.
In the Telegraph, (02/05/12) medical correspondent Stephen Adams reported that family dinners “make for healthier kids”. Reporting what he refers to as “a major review”, Adams suggests that “eating together as a family leads to healthier children who are less likely to be overweight”. This headline, and the kind of survey research upon which it is based, are very familiar to social scientists studying food and eating in families. As often as not reports of such research link the supposed “decline of the family meal” to a number of factors among which the increase in mothers’ paid employment usually ranks high.
Blaming parents, especially “working mothers”, for negative child outcomes is a well-established cultural narrative in the UK. So too is mourning the loss of an idealised past of family life. The fact that such findings are so often reported uncritically reveals the ideological strength of bringing these ideas together.
But it does not demand much (sociological) imagination to wonder how these facts are made. To begin with, what constitutes a family, or indeed a meal, is not self-evident. The issue of how meal frequency is measured also presents all sorts of problems. Further questions include the age of the children under discussion and whether parents are prepared to own up to their children not eating as part of the family. Are enough younger children reported to eat alone to make meaningful comparisons with those who are said to be eating “family meals”? These are only some of the questions to ask if conventional wisdom is to be challenged and subjected to empirical evidence.
Lazy reporting and simplifications of the “evidence” often imply causal relationships between food and family life which do little to help parents or children. A more critical approach challenges the idea that mothers should still be still held responsible for their children’s diets even when they also do paid work. It also interrogates the rise in obesity in relation to a range of factors, not least of which is the increasing commodification of food and the power of the food industry. Recognising the role of commercial interests in shaping our health and that of our children suggests that attempts to regulate parents might be better directed toward regulating the food industry and challenging policy, not only parents, to bring something fresh to the table.
Rebecca is co-convenor of the British Sociological Association Food Study Group which is hosting its third conference, Food & Society 2012, at the British Library Conference Centre on 2-3 July.