Young people whose families use food banks are at increased risk of poor mental health, according to a new British study.
And food bank use is also associated with lower rates, in research raising concerns about the long-term effects of food poverty on young people.
The report comes just a day after the release of figures showing UK food prices have risen at their fastest pace in nearly 45 years.
Research found that more than half of young people in families who say they are struggling financially report poor mental health.
And rates of poor mental health are particularly high among those whose financial position has deteriorated since the start of the pandemic.
More than half (53%) of young people who took to food banks during the pandemic report poor mental health, compared with 41% of those who hadn’t, according to research conducted by academics at University College London in collaboration with the British charity the Sutton Trust.
The use of food banks also affected student performance. On exams taken at age 16, students whose families reported using food banks scored half a grade lower than expected, given their previous academic record.
“The mental health and life chances of young people and their parents are being dramatically affected by post-pandemic cost-of-living pressures,” said Dr Jake Anders, deputy director of the UCL Center for Education Policy and Equalizing Opportunities, and principal investigator of study.
“These effects are likely to be long-lasting given the apparent link between food insecurity and performance on exams.”
The research is part of the Covid Social Mobility and Opportunities (Cosmo) study, which follows a cohort of 13,000 young people who are now 17 and 18 years old.
Nearly four in ten (39%) of households reported that their financial situation was worse than before the pandemic, with one in ten young people living in households classified as food insecure.
More than a third (36%) of young people whose parents used the food bank were not eligible for free school meals, raising doubts about whether the barrier to eligibility for the meals is too high .
“That so many are food insecure, but do not qualify for free school meals under current rules, suggests that eligibility criteria urgently need to be reviewed,” said Dr Anders.
“Young people should not go hungry, especially when it can have serious long-term consequences.”
Levels of food insecurity increased dramatically during the pandemic, as supply chain disruptions caused shortages and drove prices up.
Manchester United and English footballer Marcus Rashford ran a campaign at the height of the pandemic, embarrassing the UK government by reversing a decision not to extend free school meals to school holidays.
The UK now has around 2,500 food banks, a 25% increase since 2020, with the Trussell Trust charity distributing around 2.1 million food parcels in 2021/22.
“The link between financial insecurity, mental health and academic achievement is deeply concerning,” said Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust.
“Young people have already faced many challenges as a result of the pandemic, and now they and their families are under severe financial strain due to the cost of living crisis.
“Unless action is taken, there is likely to be a deterioration in mental health that will affect an entire generation.”