Give kids access to fresh produce and stop ultra-processed foods hijacking their taste buds, campaigners warn Rishi Sunak in open letter

Children at a Food for Life school, Walsall

Children at a Food for Life school, Walsall

Children’s diets, taste buds and sensory development have been “hijacked” by ultra-processed foods, the Prime Minister has been warned by a group of renowned chefs, restauranteurs, doctors, and campaigners.

In an open letter, Organic charity the Soil Association – together with Yotam Ottolenghi, Dr Chris van Tulleken, Thomasina Miers, Bee Wilson, Kimberley Wilson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – have urged Rishi Sunak to do more to help children eat well.

Ultra-processed foods now make up around two-thirds of the average child’s diet in the UK and a growing bank of evidence has linked them to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, they warn.

The group of campaigners, which also includes head teachers, youth activists and peers, are concerned not only about the health impacts of these foods, but also about how they rob children of the chance to experience the more natural, whole foods that are essential for their development.

They have urged government to support schools to play a starring role in tackling the issue, ensuring all kids can access healthy and freshly prepared school meals, cooking and growing activities, visits to British farms, and sensory food education.

“Children are being robbed”

Addressing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the group wrote: “Learning to eat should be an adventure – joyful and challenging – but our children are increasingly being robbed of the experience. Many are growing up not knowing the tastes, textures, and smells of real food. Many will rarely feel fresh produce between their fingers. Many will enter adulthood only knowing the simplified and sweet flavours of ultra-processed products, leading to unhealthy choices and poorer health outcomes later in life.”

Alongside the letter, the Soil Association has published a report exploring how schools can be part of the solution, drawing on learnings from 20 years of its Food for Life initiative, which supports schools to adopt a “whole school approach” to food education and healthy school meals.

The charity has called on the government to revive previous commitments to roll out this approach across all schools, ensuring children are cooking and growing, visiting farms, and eating freshly prepared meals. This move is backed by Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, as well as those who signed the open letter to the Prime Minister.

Independent evaluation of Food for Life shows that if all schools in England followed this approach, a million more children would be eating their five-a-day.

It has now been almost two years since the government published a white paper that committed to supporting schools to adopt this whole school approach, according to the report, but that policy commitment has not yet been fulfilled.

Rob Percival, head of food policy for the Soil Association’s Food for Life programme, said: “Ultra-processed foods are hijacking children’s taste buds. These products are often soft and sweet, and children growing up on an ultra-processed diet are deprived of the joys and complexity of real food. Too few know the taste of bitter greens or the nutty flavour of beans and lentils, or have felt the crunch of a tomato bursting on their tongue. But we know schools can help to turn this around.

“If giving children more access to fresh ingredients and teaching them where food comes from and how to cook sounds like an obvious solution, it’s because it is. Pupils at Food for Life schools eat more fruit and vegetables not because they’ve been told to, but because they’ve been inspired to. With children spending half their time at school, empowering all schools to adopt such an approach will help encourage healthy eating habits for life.

“Rishi Sunak could be the Prime Minister who delivers that all important five-a-day to a million more children – we are calling on him to build a legacy to be proud of when it comes to children’s diets.”

Evidence-based approach to healthy eating in schools

The Soil Association report also details evidence from a recent report from First Steps Nutrition Trust, which warned that high levels of ultra-processed food consumption in infancy “undermines taste development”.

The trust warned that this normalises snacking, sweet tastes, and soft textures, while displacing the minimally processed and unprocessed foods needed for optimal growth, health, and development.

A target for reducing ultra-processed food consumption among children is recommended by the Soil Association report, which advises government should work to achieve such a target by embedding good food in curriculums and supporting schools to source high quality, sustainable British produce.

And, according to independent analysis, embedding good food in school culture not only results in children eating a third more fruit and vegetables, but it also tracks back home with 45 per cent of parents eating better because of their children’s engagement with Food for Life.

The report also emphasises the importance of sensory food education, such as that led by TastEd. Despite the sessions focusing on smell, sight, sound and feel – without requiring children to taste or like the foods – the charity has found that around three-quarters of children find they like a fruit or vegetable that they tried during a TastEd session.

Dr Chris van Tulleken, author of best-seller Ultra Processed People, said: “Growing up on an ultra-processed diet is a bit like growing up blindfolded - cut off from the colours and complexity of real food. It’s fantastic to see that pioneering schools are beginning to address this disconnect, employing practical food education and serving freshly prepared meals. Political action is now needed to ensure all schools can do so.”