NHS doctors are to begin prescribing food to patients as part of a drive to tackle the hunger and malnutrition suffered by people living in poverty.
Vouchers for fruit and vegetables will be offered by GPs in a number of practices as part of a drive to increase “social prescribing”.
Dr Michael Dixon, NHS England’s clinical champion for social prescribing, said he wants every GP to offer a more holistic approach to tackling issues like hunger and diet-related disease.
“Our role does extend beyond drugs and procedures,” he said. “We should be making sure people are properly fed, safe and have houses that aren’t damp.
“I hope it also has an engineering role in terms of creating a local community where people are more knowledgeable about good food and able to cook it.”
The move has emerged as The Independent is running a Christmas campaign aimed at providing children in poverty with healthy food and helping to slash food waste.
The Department of Health, with NHS England and Public Health England, has made £4m available to encourage third party and voluntary organisations to set up social prescribing programmes, in part, to reduce pressure on overstretched NHS services.
Three GP practices in Lambeth, south London, will launch a pilot scheme next year to offer food vouchers on prescription, while other schemes combatting issues like loneliness, obesity and stress already offer patients referrals to gardening clubs or cooking lessons.
Rosie Oglesby, national director of food poverty charity Feeding Britain, said social prescriptions had an important role to play in preventing malnutrition that could save the NHS millions each year.
“Malnutrition is a huge issue. Interventions like social prescribing can help to tackle the problem earlier on, and prevent people ending up in desperate situations,” she said.
“Tackling hunger and malnutrition is not just about making sure people have full stomachs, but about making sure they can eat well and get the nutrition they need.”
The scheme in Lambeth, which will be funded by the Alexandra Rose charity, will allow doctors to issue physical scripts to patients to the value of £1 that can be redeemed at market stalls in the local area.
Chief executive Jonathan Pauling said it responds to a growing need in an increasingly “harsh” food economy.
“The reality is food prices are going up and up, wages and benefits have been stagnant for a long time and families are struggling day by day,” he said.
“It’s completely understandable why families might be eating food that isn’t as healthy as you would hope. It’s easy to access, it’s cheap – in some parts of the country there are food deserts and access to fresh fruit and vegetables just isn’t really there.”
Sir Sam Everington is a GP in Tower Hamlets in London and a founder of Bromley by Bow Centre which works with more than 100 social prescribing schemes, including those offering cooking classes and education on healthy eating to children.
He has seen first hand the impact of malnutrition and said social prescribing schemes could tackle the root causes.
“A lot of our kids are malnourished in Tower Hamlets, and Vitamin D deficient. Some estimates put it as high as 50 per cent,” he said.
“That is down to education, choice and diet, but it leads to widespread malnutrition and I would include obesity as part of that, it’s a spectrum.
“Some of the social prescribing teams do food, fruit and veg parcels. But it’s as an educational tool, it’s not as a replacement.”
Social prescribing works by linking practices up to independent and charity services in their community, and makes use of “link workers” to help patients find the service they need.
This is intended to relieve pressure on stretched staff and get patients more appropriate help, such as benefits advice, weight-loss services, or “knit and natter” groups for loneliness.
“Some people say ‘why is the practice doing it? Why don’t people go straight to the local authority or the food banks?’” Dr Dixon said.
“The answer is, that’s not where they go.”
He likens it to the pressure on A&Es from people attending with minor illnesses, adding: “You either have to sort out how to redirect them or how to help them when they get there.
“It makes GP practices a one-stop shop. You get your social and medical needs sorted in one place.”
As reported in The Independent earlier this month, food poverty in Britain is contributing to an increase in Victorian illnesses like rickets and stunted growth in children.
More than 60 per cent of paediatricians believe food insecurity contributed to the ill health among children they treat, according to a 2017 survey by the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health.
Dr George Grimble, a medical scientist at University College London, said food poverty was “disastrous” for a child’s development, resulting in nutritional deficits, obesity and squandered potential.
“When people are in poverty they are forced to buy the cheapest foods – filling but nutrient-lacking food,” Dr Grimble said. “Food poverty in the community overlays to a large extent on disease malnutrition.”