Child of the North and Centre for Young Lives report calls for schools to be supported to fix the broken school food system and tackle Britain’s child obesity crisis


Child of the North and Anne Longfield’s Centre for Young Lives think tank are today publishing a new joint report, which makes a series of recommendations which if implemented will help tackle the child obesity crisis and mend the broken school food system

The report is the fifth in a series by Child of the North – led by the N8 Research Partnership and Health Equity North – and the Centre for Young Lives being published throughout 2024, focusing on how both the Government and Opposition can reset their vision for children, to put the life chances of young people at the heart of policy making and delivery.

An evidence-based plan for supporting physical activity and healthy nutrition with and through education settings argues that schools should be crucial environments for boosting healthy eating and physical activity and highlights overwhelming evidence on the need to empower schools to devise their own whole-school approaches in collaboration with their local communities.

The report’s evidence-based policy recommendations include to:

  • Introduce clear nutrition standards for all food and drink available at school including school meals, snacks, and vending machines, and supporting schools to promote physical activity throughout all areas of the school day.
  • Extend free school fruit and vegetables provision to all school year groups and expand the provision of school breakfast clubs.
  • Widen entitlement to Free School Meals and the provision of the Healthy Start scheme, which provides weekly food vouchers for pregnant women and families with children under four years, in low-income households.

The report warns that the evidence is overwhelming and unequivocal – the health of children and young people in the UK is getting worse, and children’s education, health and wellbeing is being affected by inactivity and unhealthy diets.

Physical activity has been shown to enhance educational attainment and mental and physical health outcomes, and a healthy diet in childhood is related to improved educational attainment and physical and mental wellbeing. However, since 1995, physical activity levels have been decreasing, and diet quality has decreased, with an increased intake of processed foods and reduced intake of fruit and vegetables.

The combination of inactivity and unhealthy diet is also fuelling the obesity epidemic, with long-term negative impacts on physical and mental health, and the additional pressures this puts on the NHS. Currently, obesity rates are costing the NHS around £6.5 billion a year and it is the second largest preventable cause of cancer.

The report highlights how:

  • Almost four million children are not physically active for the recommended 60-plus minutes a day.
  • Children and young people from the least affluent families are the least likely to be active, with fewer than half meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines.
  • 4,000 hours of PE were lost from the curriculum in state-funded secondary schools in 2022-23.
  • 250,000 eligible children are missing out on Free School Meals due to the out-dated opt-in system, and 900,000 children living in poverty in England do not qualify for Free School Meals at all due to restrictive eligibility.
  • 18% of households experienced food insecurity in 2022-23.
  • 82% of 5-15-year-olds do not consume the recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables, and children aged 4-10 years are consuming almost double their recommended daily sugar limits.
  • Fewer than 2% of packed lunches meet the Government’s School Food Standards.

The report also highlights the challenges facing schools as they try to provide healthy food on tiny budgets. It publishes research carried out by the University of York’s FixOurFood programme and the Food Foundation, which investigated children’s perceptions of the food offered within secondary schools and looked at whether they could buy tasty, healthy, and sustainable food with the free school meal allowance.

Its conclusions show how children on free school meals often face restricted choices, having to opt for meal deals, even though in some instances non-meal-deal items offered healthier alternatives. There was a lack of fruit, vegetables, and salad in all schools, and portion sizes were often not filling, leaving children hungry. As one young researcher commented: “The closest thing you get to fruit is jelly”.

The report urges Government to:

  • Establish whole-school approaches for physical activity and healthy nutrition, bringing together health and education to better support childhood health and wellbeing. Every school should be able to tailor its own approach based on its unique local circumstances.
  • Support schools to deliver an ethos where the health and wellbeing of pupils is central to teaching practices and the wider school environment, and encourage Ofsted to recognise schools that emphasise the importance of activity and healthy eating.
  • Support schools to work alongside local Higher Education institutions, to draw on research expertise, including expertise on physical activity and healthy nutrition, to highlight the most effective interventions and use local and national data to guide good practice, in coordination with local communities.

The report highlights some of the innovative approaches being taken to improve the health of children and young people through schools, including auto-enrolment of Free School Meals, as currently being investigated by FixOurFood.

Read the full report – An evidence-based plan for supporting physical activity and healthy nutrition with and through education settings

Find out more about the A country that works for all children and young people series


Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives, said:

“We are facing a child obesity crisis, and our children are becoming unhealthier and less active. The resulting poor physical and mental health of our population is crippling the NHS and urgent action is needed. The broken school food system and the lack of school funding to improve school meals is acting as a huge barrier to healthy food choices and improved children’s health.

“With the right support, schools have a crucial role to play as partners in developing and delivering wider approaches to supporting improved health nutrition and increased physical activity. If we get it right, some of the other challenges facing schools – the rising number of absences due to ill health, concentration levels, and classroom behaviour for example – could also be improved.

“We should look to Sweden where the introduction of high-quality lunches has raised educational attainment, improved health in adulthood, and increased earnings. Current strategies are making too little difference. It’s time to superpower our schools and communities to help children and young people eat well, engage in physical activity, and be healthy.”

Professor Mark Mon Williams, Child of The North report series editor, said:

“The links between health and education are illustrated perfectly through the negative impact on learning created by a malnourished child. A healthy country needs to invest in its future workforce and this means supporting schools to help children eat well and be active. The paltry costs necessary to ensure children learn effectively would be swamped by the long term savings the NHS would make if it wasn’t picking up the obesity problems created through the first two decades of someone’s life.”

Report author Dr Eleanor Bryant, Associate Professor in Health and Eating Behaviour Psychology at the University of Bradford, said:

“Children that receive adequate healthy nutrition are more able to engage with education as well as have better physical and mental health. This report highlights the benefits of universal approaches, including Free School Meals, and Breakfast Clubs. It also emphasises the importance of child voice in decision making around healthy nutrition in schools. We urgently need change to ensure children have the best possible chance to succeed within education settings.”

Report author Dr Lucy Eddy, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Bradford, said:

“The broader curriculum in schools emphasises the importance of wider health and wellbeing behaviours for later life chances. Schools need to be empowered to and rewarded for supporting more holistic child development. The adoption of whole-school approaches that are tailored to the needs of local communities, have the potential to have long-lasting impacts on education, health and wellbeing for the next generation and beyond.”