Children across Britain are suffering worsening levels of tooth decay, anxiety and stunted growth as the cost of food continues to soar, a survey of school nurses has found.
The scale and severity of health issues facing pupils has worsened in the past year as food prices soared to their highest level in 45 years, according to research.
Nurses reported children squirrelling away school meals to take home to their parents, while a growing number were being taken to A&E after fainting due to hunger.
A pupil who had been excluded was recently reported to the police by his school for climbing over a barbed-wire fence to take home “the slops” from the waste food bins.
“I’m not overdramatising at all when I say we’ve got starving, hungry, sad, worried children committed crimes so their families can eat,” said Sharon White, the chief executive of the School and Public Health Nurses Association (Saphna). “This could have lifelong, far-reaching consequences. It’s horrendous and it’s gut-wrenching.”
The survey of 313 school nurses and dentists found that two-thirds said the health issues facing children had worsened in the past year, with parents in work struggling to afford nutritious meals.
Almost half said they dealt with children suffering due to a lack of healthy food on a daily or weekly basis.
The most common health issues were decaying and damaged teeth – seen by nearly four in five children’s nurses and dentists – as well as worsening mental health problems, stunted growth, and behavioural changes such as anxiety and increased irritability.
The study was carried out by Saphna and the British Dental Association (BDA) as part of the No Child Left Behind campaign urging the government to commit to free school meals for every primary school pupil in England.
The governments of Scotland and Wales have started rolling out universal free school meals to primary school pupils, while London will follow suit from September.
All children in maintained schools in England are entitled to free school meals up to the end of Year 2, after which it only applies to households on certain benefits.
White, whose organisation works with 5,000 school nurses across the UK, said: “This is about political choices, this is not about money.”
She said ministers should significantly widen the eligibility for universal credit and free school meals to ensure that “the children that need it, get it”.
White said she recently met a hospital nurse who could not afford to warm up meals for her three children.
The nurse had resorted to taking sanitary products from the hospital where she works to give to her daughter because she could not afford them, while her 13-year-old son started a paper round so they could afford to switch on the oven.
The nurse and her electrician partner do not qualify for universal credit despite being “desperate” and on the breadline.
“We’ve got so many people on the borderline that don’t qualify for universal credit and they are desperate,” said White.
The study findings come amid growing pressure on Labour to introduce universal free school meals for primary-age children in England if the party wins the next general election.
Keir Starmer has resisted calls to widen the eligibility of free school meals as he seeks to keep a lid on public spending.
Expanding free school meals in England would cost more than £1bn a year but experts have pointed out the benefits of children who perform better in schools and are healthier thanks to a nutritious diet.
More than three-quarters of the hundreds of school nurses and dentists surveyed said a daily nutritious meal would improve the health of primary school pupils to a large or very large extent. Ninety-four per cent of respondents backed the proposal overall.
One children’s dentist said parents were raising the high cost of food “pretty much every day” and it was resulting in a vicious cycle of hunger: poor nutrition results in high levels of tooth decay, leading to pain and infection which makes children more reluctant to eat.