Food must be top of benefits menu

Being homeless is one example of the many forms of social
exclusion facing the young people with whom Centrepoint works. When
thinking about these issues, it is all too easy to assume that
eating healthily is not top of their priority list. Yet recent
Centrepoint research has shown how food poverty can compound their
exclusion and affect their physical and mental health.

Struggling to eat on a low income can serve as a reminder of
homeless people’s limited choices and inability to meet their
own needs. After essential expenditure on rent and travel, our
residents on benefits report having less than £10 to buy their
weekly food, and as a result are often forced to consider the price
of food before its nutritional value. Many young people want to eat
healthily, and rather than filling their baskets with value ranges
and highly processed foods would like to buy more fresh food such
as meat, fish, salads, fruit and vegetables. Yet financial
constraints mean that they often have to buy what is cheapest.

Weight loss, frequent headaches and depression are just some of
the symptoms young people connect to their poor and often
monotonous diets. This is worrying because they need to be in a
positive state of physical and mental health if they are to have
the best chance of overcoming the barriers that they will
undoubtedly face. It is simply unacceptable that our residents
describe being unable to concentrate at college because they
can’t afford a packed lunch or to eat at the college

The welfare reform agenda must introduce measures to increase
financial support for young people if they are to have the
opportunity to take full responsibility for their health. But
tackling food poverty does not just come down to money – young
people also need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge that
will enable them to maintain a healthy diet. Cooking is a key life
skill. We found that the confident cooks among our residents were
able to make their money stretch by creating nutritious meals from
the most basic ingredients.

Evidence shows that many disadvantaged young people miss out on
opportunities to receive crucial health information at home and
school. All agencies that work with them must help by filling in
the gaps in their learning. It is our experience that young people
want to take control of their diets, and when equipped with the
skills, can build healthy lifestyles for themselves.

Ellie Lewis is a policy and research officer at

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