Sharon speaking on the last day of LACA's Main Event in Birmingham 08.07.16
Photo copyright Lindsay Graham, 2016.
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, Sharon was invited to speak on the morning of the last day of the Lead Association in Catering in Education's (LACA) annual conference in Birmingham. Sharon spoke about the work already achieved by campaigners in school food policy, and the work still to do and what catering staff can do to help push this important agenda forward.
You can read Sharon's speech below:
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
It is wonderful to be here speaking to you this morning – I hope that many of you don’t have sore heads this morning after the fun and frivolities of last night’s dinner.
As many of you in the room will know, I’m Sharon Hodgson, Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food.
I have been a friend of LACAs for a very long time now and have campaigned on our shared vision of seeing every child sitting down at lunchtime to a hot and healthy school meal, along with championing the dedication and hard-work of catering staff which can go underappreciated whenever Westminster talks about school food.
This year’s conference is centred on the theme of lead, inspire and empower.
These are things that I know you all in this room have in abundance. Only recently I was at the awards ceremony for school cooks in London and the South East region receiving their certificates for completing the LACA training course and heard about some of the inspiring stories on leadership from those on the frontline.
So do not worry you’re not going to get a politician preaching to you this morning.
What I want to do is tell you about the work of the APPG in Parliament, and how this can affect your work on the ground and what we can all do together to push forward on our agenda of improving food in our schools.
We have already seen leadership and inspiration from catering staff when the previous Coalition Government introduced and rolled out universal infant free school meals (UIFSM).
This was a huge endeavour that the Government asked of catering staff and you rose to the occasion valiantly.
After many years of politicians, charities, trade bodies – such as LACA – and many others who believe in the benefits of universal free school meals spending years lobbying government on this issue and working collaboratively with John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby to ensure it was a key recommendation in the School Food Plan, we were all delighted that it became a reality in 2014.
However, those who would have a mountain to climb – all of you in this room this morning – all rose to the challenge and ensured that come that date on 1st September 2014 that no infant child was left hungry and was able to access this important entitlement to their education, health and wellbeing.
You help feed children day in, day out and should be thanked endlessly for that but I want to say directly to you all: thank you for what you did in making our shared dream of universal infant free school meals a reality that is proving a world of difference to children’s lives. Thank you.
UIFSM is here to stay, or hopefully, depending on whoever becomes Prime Minister in the autumn, but I want you to know that your work has not gone unnoticed and you have allies in Parliament standing in your corner ensuring your hard work isn’t for naught.
This doesn’t mean our fight is over to improve the food on offer to children; far from it.
The APPG has worked on addressing issues around food education in the national curriculum, ensuring that Ofsted takes inspection of food more seriously in their inspections, and more recently raising awareness of the disparity between food in packed lunches and that which is offered as part of a school meal.
The APPG looked into the issue of packed lunches in the lead up to the Government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy – which has become a case of jam-tomorrow where the Government continues to hold off whilst they are otherwise occupied on first the referendum and now on who succeeds David Cameron and takes over negotiating our divorce from the EU.
When we know that only 1% of packed lunches meet the Government’s nutritional standards, and parents and head teachers have called for support to ensure that children were eating healthier food in their packed lunches, the APPG believed it was time that the Government stopped sitting on their hands and used this as a prime time to address childhood obesity as part of their upcoming strategy.
Catering staff can be important in these discussions too. You are the ones who feed our children daily through the school week and see the food that many bring in to school – cold, leftover burgers and chips from the takeaway the night before to a cereal bar and a packet of crisps. The list could go on and you will all have your own sorry and sad examples.
That is why we need to be having discussions about introducing a non-mandatory packed lunch standards framework that ensures parents, teachers and catering staff can buy into the culture and ethos that we all want to see: children eating healthier and leading healthier lives.
Another important issue that the APPG has been working on in recent years is the issue of child hunger, which has been steered passionately by Lindsay Graham – who spoke on this issue at last year’s conference.
When we know that the school is open for 190 days of the year, the other 175 days are still just as important, especially in ensuring that the positive work during term time is not undone by children spending the holidays – especially the long summer holidays which are just around the corner – not receiving the necessary food and nutrients, if fed much at all, to see them through the holidays.
There are many who think that when the school gates lock for the school holidays, that it is none of our business how a child eats, or doesn’t in some cases, when they are at home.
However, when anecdotal evidence shows that children are returning to school after the holidays malnourished and behind their peers in terms of their education and their health, it is paramount that we do something. We cannot sit back and do nothing.
That is why the APPG set up the Holiday Hunger Task Group, which has helped drive awareness of the need for policy in this area and is chaired by Lindsay Graham.
In the short time the task group has been going, we have seen: a mapping exercise undertaken by Northumbria University of the current provision in the country as a whole to address holiday hunger; voluntary guidelines published for organisations and groups to use when planning holiday provision which includes food provision, and; a best practice report which shows the vanguard work already going on around the country.
Catering staff can play their part in this and harness that passion and leadership seen during the implementation phase of UIFSM and direct it towards child holiday hunger.
There is only so much that we can do as politicians, especially like me in opposition – although putting the Prime Minister on the spot does sometimes help - but when we have that critical mass of support behind us we can make change happen.
This is something we can all do and be involved in.
Remember, as the School Food Plan noted, the school catering service is bigger than the navy – and the Government listen to them.
So why not you if we all work together?
The leadership of LACA are already behind this and have worked closely on the Task Group since its creation, and now is the time for us all to be champions in our communities and speak to people about what more we can do.
Speak to your school management about what they can do, speak to your local church or food bank about what more can be done in collaboration together on this issue, and most importantly speak to your MP.
As a Member of Parliament myself, having a constituent highlight an issue in your local area is always important to grabbing their attention on a national issue and get them behind a cause.
Do the research and write to them, ask them to meet with you and talk about this more and tell them about what is already going on in your area and ask them to help with our campaign.
You may not see yourselves as campaigners but your voices should –and must - be heard, and the only way to do that is to speak to your local representatives and make them aware.
The only way we can make change is by using the democratic processes we have in this country and use it to make the change we want to see in society.
We cannot forget the long road we have travelled together on school food, but there is an even longer road we must now take before we see child holiday hunger finally addressed.
You are all on the frontline on these issues and can inspire and empower each other to be the leaders on this issue and allow us all to work together to see that change.
We have a duty to those children we all want to help. We cannot let them down.