Sharon Hodgson MP, Chair of the APPG for School Food, talks about the importance of healthy school meals.
School meals are a lifeline for so many children – but far too many are missing out as the perfect storm sees children left behind.
As we approach a new tax year, children and families are about to face the perfect storm, with skyrocketing energy bills and a hike in national insurance, matched by an increasingly expensive weekly shop, a cut to Universal Credit and, in many parts of the country, rising council tax. As the choice between heating or eating becomes commonplace, never has school food been so important.
The audience to this article will know all too well that hungry children cannot learn, but in too many places across the UK, this simple phrase is becoming an incredibly complex reality for young people and children. Alarming statistics are beginning to show the effects of the pandemic on the health of our most disadvantaged young people and children – something which will in time translate into poorer life expectancy and higher morbidity rates. Already a baby born in Gateshead is expected to live 15 years less than a baby born in Grantham; this will only be further exacerbated.
Healthy school meals provide a lifeline for children facing food insecurity. However, more children are falling into poverty but remain ineligible for free school meals.
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, I believe this crisis needs urgent Government attention before it becomes a public health catastrophe.
The recent Government White Paper on Levelling Up appears to recognise the role of school food and the importance of the healthy and nutritious food which local council catering teams provide.
The White Paper has positively listened to school food organisations, head teachers and pupils who have emphasised the importance of monitoring school food against mandatory standards. Schools will have to publish a ‘whole school food’ approach, which will be piloted by the Food Standards Agency – support is being given to governors to make this a reality. These commitments are also to be joined by better support for food teachers for food education.
And while the White Paper has taken forward some recommendations from Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy review, it leaves significant gaps which the forthcoming White Paper on the National Food Strategy review must address.
Statistics show the importance of making healthy school food accessible in order to stem the prevalence of obesity which has risen markedly since the start of the pandemic, no more so than for children from deprived backgrounds. While the Community Eat Well programme enables GPs to prescribe exercise and healthy food, you only have to acknowledge GP waiting times to see potential problems along the way. Meanwhile the White Paper is marked by a lack of progress in the Government’s obesity strategy and commitment to tackling junk food advertisement.
The Levelling Up White Paper pays little attention to the disparities that exist in access to school food. School meals could be perfect, but as long as children facing food insecurity in the home fail to access healthy food at school, the Government is leaving children behind and levelling up will fail. Food insecurity and obesity prevalence continue to rise and though the White Paper promises policy to level up, local council catering teams will have to make up that ground as areas continue to be left behind. The lasting impact on the public health of areas with high deprivation will cause inequality for generations.
Levelling up requires action, not just warm words from Whitehall. The Government must pay serious attention to school food as more families and children fall into poverty.
The wait for the White Paper response to the National Food Strategy continues.
Sharon spoke on this topic at the APSE Facilities Management, Catering and Cleaning Seminar 2022 in Nottingham on 3 March.