Making sure children eat a nutritious and varied diet is
difficult, especially if the child in question is in care. Clare
Jerrom reports on why nutrition is an issue that social services
needs to get its teeth into.
Presented with a choice of burger and chips, or liver and
vegetables, most children would turn their nose up at the healthy
option and tuck in to the burger.
But what happens when there is no nagging mum at the dinner
table explaining how good greens are for you? Or no dad saying
there will be no apple pie until the sprouts have disappeared?
For young people in care, nutrition is often neglected. The
educational, emotional and psychological needs of young people can
take precedence over basic health issues, including nutrition,
which are forced to take a back seat.
Young people in Britain have poor diets, with too much fat and
sugar and too little iron, calcium, zinc and vitamins A and C. But
for those in care, nutrition is the responsibility of the
residential care home staff or foster parents and some young people
enter the care system with poor nutrition that needs improving. Is
it too much to ask over-stretched care staff to concentrate on this
on top of their workloads?
Billie Ibidun, national co-ordinator of A National Voice, an
organisation set up to represent the views of young people in care,
says: “When you look at the long-term health implications that
blight the health of the nation, including cancer, heart disease,
diabetes, rickets and brittle bones, it proves that nutrition is an
issue that needs to be taken seriously.”
Ibidun says she was shocked by the diet of some young people in
care who survive on crisps, fizzy drinks, chocolate and chips.
The problem is exacerbated for young people leaving care. A Save
the Children report found that thousands of young people in the UK
leave care inadequately prepared to live independently, to shop,
cook and therefore to eat well.1
So why has this vital area been neglected? Ibidun suggests that
young people in general don’t know enough about food and are not
exposed to a wide enough range. The way food is marketed ensures
high fat, high sugar foods are made particularly attractive to
Anne Dillon Roberts is founder trustee of the Caroline Walker
Trust, which was set up after the death of a nutritionist. She
says: “It is difficult to know why nutrition has been a
comparatively neglected area. However, many people are unaware that
malnutrition can mean having too much food, or the wrong balance of
foods, as well as too little food.”
While carers are expected to have responsibility for nutrition,
they are not given any training or guidelines to work towards.
Dillon Roberts chaired an expert working group that examined the
nutrition of young people in care. Its report makes 63
recommendations and blames lack of training in
nutrition.2 Its guidelines were road-tested in Somerset
and the director of social services, Chris Davies, says his staff
“Common sense tells us this is important. We can’t do much more
than give these children a good start in life. When the issue was
discussed on the road tests, the staff were enthusiastic about the
material and new ways of addressing nutrition,” he says.
According to Ibidun, there are strong links between food and the
nature of care experienced by youngsters.
“I have found there is definitely a correlation between the
quality of care and the quality of food. Where the food is good,
and the children’s background, tastes and beliefs are reflected in
their food, the better care they believe they are receiving.
Similarly, bad food is associated with a bad quality of care,” she
The government acknowledges that nutrition is vital for the
healthy development of young people. The Children Act 1989 says
that all young people should be eating nutritious food, but there
is no definition of the word nutritious and no guidelines are given
leading to an open interpretation of the word. Roberts says: “It is
important that inspection officers have quantified nutritional
standards to monitor against.”
But an official from the Social Services Inspectorate children’s
policy branch, says the report’s recommendations are too detailed
to include in the children’s homes standards which will be used by
the National Care Standards Commission when it starts work next
Instead, the importance of nutrition will be stressed and the
SSI will cross-reference the working group’s recommendations for
local authorities to use as guidelines.
In the meantime, as the National Standards for the Regulation of
Children’s Homes will not be implemented until April next year, it
seems we will have to wait to see nutrition moved up the agenda.
1 A Hobbiss, Look Ahead: Young People,
Residential Care and Food, Save The Children,
2 Catherine Walker Trust, Eating Well for
Looked After Children, Catherine Walker Trust,
Food for thought
Some of the conclusions from the Caroline Walker Trust’s report
Eating Well for Looked After Children.
– Local authorities should provide nutritional training to all
– There should be a health professional for staff to consult
about nutritional issues.
– Young people in care should acquire skills in cooking,
shopping, menu planning, budgeting and understanding healthy
– Communication between staff and young people about food is