A new study conducted in the UK has revealed that young people whose family members use food banks are at a higher risk of poor mental health. Furthermore, these studies raise concerns about the long-term effects of food poverty on young people and link food bank use to lower grades. Research shows that more than half of young people in families who are struggling financially report poor mental health. Since the pandemic began, mental health failure rates are particularly high among those whose economic conditions have deteriorated. More than half of young people who started using food banks during the pandemic reported worsening mental health compared to 41% of young people who do not.
Access to food banks also impacted student performance. In a test taken at age 16, students who reported that their families used food banks scored half lower than expected based on their academic performance. The report highlights that “the mental health and life chances of young people and their parents are being dramatically impacted by post-pandemic cost-of-living pressures.” This comes as figures were released showing UK food prices are rising at the fastest pace in nearly 45 years.
The COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities (COSMO) study tracks about 13,000 young people who are now 17 and 18. Nearly 4 in 10 (39%) have also reported worsening economic conditions, with 1 in 10 young people living in food-insecure households due to the pandemic, and 3 of those whose parents used food banks. More than a quarter (36%) were not eligible for free school meals, raising questions about whether the standards for inclusion are too high.
The fact that they are not considered eligible for free school meals under current regulations, despite having them, suggests that eligibility criteria need to be reviewed urgently. In particular, young people should not starve where it could have serious long-term consequences. Levels of food insecurity have increased during the pandemic as supply chain disruptions have led to shortages and higher prices. The UK now has about 2,500 food banks, up 25% from 2020, and the charity Trussell Trust distributed about 2.1 million food parcels in 2021/22.
Sir Peter Rumple, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “The links between financial insecurity, mental health and academic performance are of great concern. Young people are already facing many challenges due to the pandemic, and young people and their families are currently facing severe economic pressure from the cost of living crisis: “Unless action is taken, mental health can deteriorate and affect entire generations.” The report highlights the urgent need for action to address these issues and protect the mental health and future prospects of young people and their families.