The Levelling Up White Paper placed food and health – particularly when growing up – at the heart of the levelling up agenda. The Government committed to introducing minimum standards for school food, as well as much stronger reporting and accountability for healthy food in school.
This is essential for levelling up, given the well-established link between disparities in health outcomes and variation in economic opportunity. Places with less healthy diets and higher disease burdens tend to have lower levels of productivity, earnings and higher rates of deprivation, with each reinforcing the other.
In the 2020/21 academic year, over 1.74 million children were eligible for free school meals with a disproportionate number of those coming from regions commonly associated with levelling up. Data from the ONS suggests that the North of England has substantially higher rates of children on free school meals compared to their southern counterparts. The highest region is the North East with 23.5% of school pupils eligible for free school meals. In the South East it is almost half at only 12.9%.
Roughly six months on since the discussion took place at Conservative Party Conference, this roundtable event will examine health disparities among young people and the role of school food in addressing health inequality. We will discuss the role that junk food plays in children’s diets from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and the levers that exist to embed healthy eating from a young age, including extension of free school meals and efforts to improve the quality of school food.