Children in Britain being stunted by poor diet is shameful

<span>‘Public health measures to support healthy eating are needed now and the decline in public health nurses should be reversed.’</span><span>Photograph: Robert Slade/Alamy</span>
‘Public health measures to support healthy eating are needed now and the decline in public health nurses should be reversed.’Photograph: Robert Slade/Alamy

Re your report (UK children shorter, fatter and sicker amid poor diet and poverty, report finds, 19 June), sadly, this is nothing new; we persist in repeating the mistakes of the past. The Boer war revealed that 40% to 60% of volunteers to the army, mainly from working-class backgrounds, were rejected on medical grounds. They were of short stature and their poor diet resulted in poor health. As a result, public health measures were introduced, including the employment of health visitors and school nurses.

Data shows that health visitor numbers in England have reached an all-time low, decreasing by more than a third (37%) since 2015 to 7,030 in 2022. That’s approximately one health visitor per 509 children under five. Likewise, school nurses have seen a similar decline, decreasing by 33% between 2009 and 2022, from 2,915 to 1,945 (approximately one school nurse per 5,306 school-age child).

As a retired nurse who worked in public health for many years, I can testify to the importance of these professions in supporting families, and preventing ill health and child abuse. Their decline goes largely uncommented upon. Home visits to families with children under five have been reduced to a minimum and child health clinics reduced across the country, as has health screening in schools.

Rationing in the second world war led to an improvement in the diets as a result of the fair distribution of healthy food. Public health measures to support healthy eating are needed now and the decline in public health nurses should be reversed.

Do we really care more about making profits from selling unhealthy ultra-processed food for children to eat than investing in the health of the nation’s children?
Claire Godfrey
Stansted, Kent

• Your devastating news article was almost too painful to read. The condition it describes has even worse consequences than the headline suggests.

Not only are such young children smaller than their peers, but their intellectual and social development is likely to be irreversibly damaged. Their educational and job prospects will be seriously impaired, as will their ability to function as responsible citizens.

Stunting, as it is called, is endemic across sub-Saharan Africa, where its impact has a measurable effect on the national economies of more than 50 poor countries.

The fact of its existence in Britain speaks volumes about how we treat our children and reflects how services such as Sure Start, which were making such a difference in communities, were closed during the austerity policies pursued by the Conservatives during the Cameron and Osborne era.

Let’s hope that this report will spur the incoming administration to act quickly to give children’s health and nutrition a far higher priority.
Brian Waller
Retired director of social services

• The downward trajectory of the health of our children is a terrible indictment of decades of government disregard for healthy diets in both children and adults.

Poor diet has now overtaken smoking as the leading killer in many western countries. So let’s learn from history. The coalition Action on Smoking and Health, formed by the Royal College of Physicians in 1971, played a decisive role in achieving tobacco control in the UK. Now is the time for a comparable coalition against junk- and ultra-processed food (UPF).

The UK needs a unified voice, free from industry influence, to campaign and lobby government, and to raise awareness against the harms of UPF, and advise on healthy dietary strategies for consumers.
Richard Hoffman
Royston, Hertfordshire

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