As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, Sharon was invited to speak to LACA's East of England about her work on school food. In her speech, Sharon discussed both childhood obesity and hunger; which can be seen as two sides of the same coin; along with why school food is an important part of a wider package of policy measures to address these issues, and what more can be done to raise awareness of these issues and the working going on in schools to address both issues.
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Thank you for that introduction, Lin.
I am honoured to be invited here today by your Regional Chair, Lin O’Brien, to talk about an issue which is very close to my heart: school food.
For many years, as the Chair of the School Food APPG, I have campaigned closely with LACA on our shared vision of seeing every child sitting down at lunchtime to a hot and healthy school meal.
I have been campaigning on school food for the best part of 10 years now; after seeing the standard of school food on offer in some of my local schools, but also what it could be like after I went on a delegation to Sweden and saw how they approached their school lunchtime.
This has included campaigning for universal free school meals, which we now have in the infant stage of school; breakfast clubs; healthier packed lunches, and also; child holiday hunger.
But I am certainly not the first politician, or hopefully the last, that will hold the mantle and champion food in our schools on the green benches of the House of Commons.
The first politician to raise school food in Parliament was back in 1906, when the Labour Member of Parliament for Bradford West, Fred Jowlett, used his maiden speech in the House of Commons to launch a campaign for school meals, that is not just that they should be free to the poor but that there should be provision in schools to start with.
This was after his work on Bradford’s School Board where he witnessed malnourished children falling behind their peers and he argued in his speech that with the introduction of compulsory education, it was down to the Government to provide children with the food necessary to sustain them throughout the day. So they could learn and benefit from the education on offer.
Jowlett’s noble intervention then led to the passing of the Provision of School Meal’s Act in 1906, which established a national strategy for local authorities to provide school meals for the very first time.
I would strongly urge you to go and read the debate, if you can. It is hard to believe that it was debated in 1906, not 2017, as the same arguments for and against are rehearsed and debated today.
It Is sad really that in some ways the case has still not been fully won over 111 years later.
Setting the scene – child health inequalities
The persistent issue of child malnutrition in our society is still as pertinent today in many ways as it was in 1906.
Obesity and hunger are the two manifestations of malnutrition, and we can see them, easily, as two sides of the same coin.
On one side of the coin, we are seeing the prevalence of obesity increasing in both reception and Year 6 that would have been unheard of in 1906.
This is then compounded by the fact that children living in the most deprived areas at both the start of primary school and at the end of primary school are more than twice as likely to be obese than their peers from more affluent backgrounds.
This is all being fed by the fact that children are consuming more sugar and fat than ever before, with little or no healthy food included in their diet. This has been supported today by Public Health England with the announcement of their voluntary guidance for sugar reduction and limits.
According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, less than one in ten 11 – 18 year olds get their 5-a-day, and also this survey revealed that children’s sugar intake remains at more than the double the latest government recommendation of no more than 5% of daily energy from free sugars.
Even according to the State of the Nation report by the Children’s Food Trust, they found that one in five parents say their children are eating fast food and ice cream once a week.
This is backed up by research by Cancer Research UK which found that UK consumers eat around 100 million ready meals and takeaways each week – with many of them consumed by children.
Not only does obesity have serious ramifications on the health of our children; with an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and bowel cancer, but also it negatively impacts educational attainment, leads to lower self-esteem and negative body image.
Then on the other side of the coin we have hungry children, going to bed hungry, going to school hungry and barely eating at all in the school holidays. For these children, their free school meals, that Fred Jowlett fought so hard for, is their main source of nutrition in their lives.
It seems jarring to think that here in the UK when we talk about a burgeoning obesity crisis that we also have an issue with hunger as well.
But, sadly, we do.
According to the Department for Work and Pension’s own statistics, there were 3.9 million children living in poverty in 2014-15.
And in the same year, the Trussell Trust, reported that the number of people provided with 3-day emergency food parcels reached just over 1 million.
If we were to account for people receiving a food parcel more than once, it would be estimated around 500,000 different people in the UK received food assistance that year – and almost half would be thought to be children.
A report by Kelloggs a few years ago, also showed the scale of the problem we face, when a third of parents reported that they skipped a meal so their children did not go hungry.
This issue is exacerbated during the school holidays, especially the summer holidays, as teachers and catering staff have anecdotally reported that children return from the long summer holidays looking malnourished and having fallen behind their peers in terms of their attainment; only to improve and catch up again after a few weeks of access to free breakfasts and lunches to help aid their learning.
Yet, sadly, many people will argue that when the school gates lock for the school holidays, it is none of our business about how a child eats, or doesn’t’ in some cases, when they are at home.
But our children are at school for 190 days of the year, and for the rest of the year, a total of 170 days, their food is the responsibility of their parents totally. Some may say this is right and how it should be.
We all know that food helps us concentrate and basically it is our fuel and stops us from fainting, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to focus on anything other than how hungry we are; so why is this not seen to be the same for children?
In 21st century Britain children are going hungry for sustained periods of time, that is why inaction and complacency cannot be accepted.
Why is school food important?
Healthy school food is crucial to our approach to childhood obesity and hunger.
Though it must be said: healthy school food is not a silver bullet that will fix everything.
But it should be included as part of a whole array of policy measures to help address health and educational issues facing our society.
Yet, I do believe it can go a long way to address these issues and be complementary to other policy measures being looked at in order to address this crisis.
Back in 2009 when the last Labour Government introduced the universal free school meal pilots in Durham and Newham the analysis was steadfast in showing the benefits of this policy measure.
In both Durham and Newham, they found an uptake of 23% in vegetable consumption at lunchtime with a steep decline in the typical unhealthy packed lunch foods.
For example, there was a 16% decline in soft drink consumption and an 18% decline in crisps being eaten.
Whilst these pilots and the future roll-out were sadly scrapped by the incoming Tory-led Coalition Government, we have thankfully seen improvements in the provision on offer when it comes to school food – especially through the School Food Plan.
The School Food Plan helped to revolutionise the way we look at food in our schools, but also provided school cooks and catering staff – just like all of you – with the support and capacity to do what you all knew to be the case in the first place: improving food on offer in order to help children’s health and educational attainment.
This is because all of us in this room right now can agree that the school setting is one of the most important vehicles for providing children with the necessary interventions to improve their life chances.
It is where we nurture and educate the future generations; so why shouldn’t we give them the right kind of fuel to achieve that?
There is still a long way to go when it comes to the School Food Plan and ensuring it is implemented correctly, and I know that Sally Shadrack is committed to doing this as the Chair of LACA and so is the rest of the School Food Plan Alliance – who are acting as the guardians of the principles and recommendations of the School Food Plan to make sure it is achieved in full.
The reason this is so important is that, as I’ve already said, for many children, their hot and healthy school meal may be the only nutritious meal they have in a day.
That is why it is imperative we do all we can to make that meal the most enjoyable and healthiest meal we can provide.
Sadly, there are still many children who do not receive free school meals – mainly because they are just over the threshold for receiving them and instead have packed lunches – the majority, 99% of which, have been shown to be lacking in nutritional value – or because their parents feel they are too ashamed to accept free school meals and want to avoid the stigma that comes with free school meals.
This is why I am evangelical about universal free school meals; not only because of the health benefits I have already described to you, but also the social and behavioural impact it can provide as well, especially in reducing the stigma that is associated with those on free school meals.
But it is important that we ensure the UIFSM policy is fully evaluated to ensure it is robust and achieves what we want it to. As the saying goes: what gets measured, gets done. That is why I’m pleased that LACA is conducting their own evaluation of UIFSM and I look forward to hearing the results in due course.
That is why it was welcome, in what was already a much reduced Childhood Obesity Plan, to see that the Government plans to commission Ofsted to look at school food as part of a wider thematic review into health and well-being in our schools.
We’re still awaiting the details of this – though I can assure you I am on the case, and keeping a close eye on what the Government are doing when it comes to this matter.
This is because it is something, we as the APPG, have been calling for over a number of years now and I hope that it provides us with the information we need to continue to raise our banners and advance our campaign for improved school food and better access to it.
What can we all do together?
Whenever I come to speak at LACA Conferences, I always have an ask of you all.
My request is the same every time and that is to write to your local Member of Parliament and let them know about the work you have been doing to improve food in your school and ask them to support measures that will benefit children’s health and education.
Even invite them along to your school to see the situation first-hand – I can assure you politicians love a good photo opportunity! And free food!
Remember, as the School Food Plan outlined, the school catering workforce is bigger than the navy – and the Government must listen to you.
You may not see yourselves as natural campaigners – but your voices should – and must – be heard.
As individuals, with experience on the ground of what is going on, and as a collective that is bigger than the navy – your influence and campaign capacity is endless.
That is why it is important that you harness it. I know that the leadership of LACA under the direction of your fabulous Chair, Sally, is already doing this, but you have to all get behind her and speak to your MPs and make them aware of all the hard work you are doing and what the issues are that we need them to get behind.
As a Member of Parliament myself, having a constituent highlight an issue to me is always important – especially when this happens on mass – so get your friends, family, work colleagues, neighbours to write in as well.
It has been over 110 years since Fred Jowlett introduced his law to begin the long march to improve food in our schools and we have a long way to go yet.
We’re the current custodians of this important issue and we must do what is right by the children in our schools today but also the children that will come after them.
If not, we will fail a generation and see the century-long march falter.
We cannot allow that to happen. The health and education of our children is far too precious to be passive about.
Our campaigning can ensure the next generation reach their full potential.
And I know that’s what we all want to see.