More than 800 school-children across the West Midlands are underweight when they first start school.
And a new inquiry by MPs has drawn attention to the scandal of young children who aren’t getting enough to eat.
Official figures collected by the NHS show that 837 reception-year children in the West Midlands region, which usually means pupils aged four or five years old, were officially classed as underweight last year.
That includes 231 in Birmingham alone, or one in 67 reception pupils in the city.
Across the whole of England, 6,001 reception year pupils were underweight.
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has published the findings of an inquiry into “Sustainable Development Goals”, focusing particularly on hunger, malnutrition and what’s known as food insecurity.
This is when a person either doesn’t have enough to eat or is worried about their ability to obtain food.
The goals were agreed by the United Nations, and are often used to measure the success of the UK’s aid programme for poor countries.
But MPs warned that the Government had failed to recognise and respond to the issues of hunger, malnutrition and obesity here in the UK.
Committee chair Mary Creagh said: “Instead of seeing hunger as an issue abroad, the Government’s New Year resolution should be one of taking urgent action at home to tackle hunger and malnutrition.”
The Committee, which includes Conservative, Green, SNP and Labour MPs, said there should be a dedicated Minister for Hunger to deal with the problem.
They said: “We call on Government to appoint a minister for hunger, to ensure cross-departmental understanding and action on this important issue.”
It’s difficult to be sure how many people in the UK don’t have enough to eat, because there are no official records.
Backbench MPs, including Birmingham MP Liam Byrne (Lab Hodge Hill), have proposed legislation which would require the Government to collect statistics showing the number of people experiencing food insecurity. However, they are unlikely to succeed unless the measure wins Government backing.
But the NHS does collect data showing the number of children officially classed as underweight, as part of the National Child Measurement Programme.
Attention has tended to focus on data, also collected by the NHS, showing the number of children classed as obese, which is much higher.
But the Environmental Audit Committee argued that obesity is also often a sign of malnutrition.
The Committee warned in its report: “While most focus in the UK is on obesity, malnutrition is interpreted both in terms of wasting (underweight) and overweight.”
Experts say that families struggling to afford food tend to buy items which are filling and which they know won’t go to waste.
The Committee said: “Often this means a reliance on cheap foods that are nutrient-poor but calorie-rich.”
Last year, 7,214 reception-year children in the West Midlands region were obese. That’s more than one in ten.
That included 1,772 children in Birmingham, around one in nine of all reception-year pupils in the city.
MPs on the Committee said there was too little information about the number of people going hungry in the UK – but it may be up to three million people.
They said: “There is no single, nationwide Government measure for hunger in the UK.
“The Committee heard evidence of the high and growing number of people experiencing hunger in the UK.
“The Food Foundation estimates 1.97 million people within the UK may be undernourished. However the British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition places the number of malnourished, specifically undernourished, people at 3 million, of which 1.3 million are over 65.”
However, the Government tends to see hunger as a problem in other countries – and fails to understand that it is a problem here, MPs said.
They warned: “Despite the need for joined-up cross-government action, hunger and food insecurity has fallen between the cracks in Government plans.
“Government continues to see hunger and food insecurity as overseas issues, with the Department for International Development the only Department to include them in its Single Departmental Plan.”
They added: “We are concerned at the Government’s turning a blind eye to UK hunger and its lack of progress in measuring and acting on hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in the UK.”
The Committee recommended that the Government appoint a minister with responsibility and accountability for combatting hunger and food insecurity within the UK.
They should work with civil society to explore the scale, causes and impact of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition; implement strategies for improvement, and monitor progress, MPs said.