THE FURORE over the UK government’s initial refusal to provide free school meals for disadvantaged children in England over the school holidays has highlighted two things.

Firstly, the strength of feeling regarding the matter.

An open letter from the Royal College of Paediatrics, signed by over 2,000 members, states: "Childhood hunger is an issue that should transcend politics…we pay tribute to Marcus Rashford and his powerful campaigning."

Secondly, hunger and the inability to access proper nutrition is not a third world problem, it is right here on our doorstep.

Figures show more than four million children in the UK live in poverty, with a third of these dependent on free school meals.

For many, this will be the only square meal they receive with any regularity.

The impact of going hungry isn’t just the acute pains of an empty stomach, but a series of outcomes with consequences that affect subsequent generations adversely.

It stands to reason that if you haven’t eaten, your ability to concentrate is impaired.

A US study demonstrated that “holiday hunger” meant disadvantaged children did not perform as well after the summer holidays, compared to children who had been fed properly, and had lost up to a month’s worth of skills.

Nutrition during the early years is vital to support proper brain development, and hence level of functioning both as a child and adult.

It isn’t surprising that malnutrition impacts mental health, with higher levels of anxiety and stress among children affected, but it is heart-breaking when you realise this is linked with greater likelihood of teenage suicide.

The formation of a robust immune system is dependent on correct nutrition during the early years.

Malnourishment leads to a greater risk of developing chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease, as well as cancer.

As mentioned above, it is hard to break the cycle.

A recent study from Imperial College London, published in the Lancet, cataloguing 65 million children aged five to 19 over the last 35 years, shows the effects of poor nutrition can lead to a height difference of 20cm between the world’s tallest and shortest nations.

When measured at the age of 19, a boy in the shortest nations (Bangladesh and Guatemala) would be the same height as a 13-year-old from the Netherlands (the tallest nation), and a 19-year-old girl from Bangladesh or Guatemala would only be the same height as an 11-year-old Dutch girl.

While emerging nations such as China and parts of South East Asia have seen improvements in their rankings in the last 35 years, the UK has actually seen a drop, from 28 to 39 place for boys and 42 to 49 place for girls, although average heights have increased modestly within this time.

The study demonstrated that these years are vital to proper childhood development.

And while it may be easy to say it is a parent’s responsibility to cater for their child’s needs, a study by the Food Foundation charity in 2018 showed that it was difficult, if not impossible, for a family earning £15,860 or less, who would have to spend 42 per cent of their income after housing to provide adequate nutrition for their children.

Arguably the pandemic has brought issues that have always been there, those of inequality, poverty and the suffering, to a heightened level of public awareness.

In the words of the late Nelson Mandela: "Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future."

As well as the truly inspirational Marcus Rashford MBE and all those members of the Royal College of Paediatrics who put their names to the open letter to the UK government, I would also like to highlight anyone and everyone who has given up their time, efforts and resources to provide free meals for anyone in need.