(Image courtesy: School Food Matters twitter, 2023)
Good afternoon everyone!
I’m delighted to be here today with you all in Leeds at the 2023 APSE Seminar.
I am also the Private Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer
However, what brings me here today, is that I am also the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food, which I set up in 2010 and have chaired ever since.
The APPG is made up of parliamentarians from all parties, charities, local authorities, food distributors, caterers, academics and many, many more, and APSE, with the fantastic Vickie Hacking, provide secretariat duties to the APPG.
The APPG provides a cross-party parliamentary platform to keep school food, child hunger and food education on the political agenda in the UK Parliament, campaigning to ensure that children receive high quality meals in and outside of school.
Across the last year, public sector catering has suffered through a really tough time, with skyrocketing energy costs and record inflation levels impacting heavily upon food and staffing costs.
Catering teams working across schools, hospitals, the care sector and universities have had to amend menus, tighten budgets and work really hard to ensure that quality food is still delivered in what seems like an ever-worsening situation.
Last time I spoke to you, we were awaiting the long term policy ambitions from the Government in response to Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy review. But as you know the Government failed to deliver much more than a new slogan.
The Government acknowledged that the food industry is bigger than the automotive and aerospace industries combined, yet all they did was re-announce existing funding in a series of vague intentions, lacking in any concrete proposals to tackle the major issues facing our country.
At the very moment the UK food system is exposed as being quite fragile under pressure from world events, the Government proved itself be tired and out of ideas, failing to deliver on the ambition that our country needs.
In Henry’s own words, it didn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now, and it didn't set out what needs to be done.
This was a disappointing way to start the summer, as gas prices and food prices began to rise. And then things took a turn for the worse, still.
The Government in crises, a merry-go-round of new ministers including prime ministers, policy at a standstill, mounting record levels of inflation, basically 12 weeks of political gambles, causing so much chaos that our economy tanked... families across the country started to really be impacted by this crisis which was frankly made in Downing Street.
And yet, public sector caterers continued to put food on the table – an increasingly difficult task, as our APPG heard at our meeting in September.
The results of an APPG survey launched by APSE found that, in just three months, close to 50% of school meal providers surveyed had experienced an increase in food costs of at least 20%.
Nearly 60% reported that utility costs increased, with one respondent noting a five-fold increase in utility costs.
These stats will only have worsened since the survey was carried out last year. While inflation is decreasing slowly, very slowly, food prices continue to rise; there is alarming situation facing school food providers, with food prices increasing from 10-30% across all areas.
This has meant some catering managers are now having to – reluctantly – turn their backs on local procurement. And in some extreme cases, I’ve heard that the number of hot meals are being reduced, and the high quality ingredients are having to be switched out for cheaper alternatives.
I know schools are doing all they can to make sure costs aren’t loaded on to paid-for meals. But the average price of a school meal will rise to £2.65 this year meaning more children will be at risk of being denied access to a hot, healthy meal.
In our survey, 60% of respondents said that dinner money debt had increased – that’s children coming to school with no money to pay for a lunch. Just under 50% reported that they had seen a decrease in the number of paid meals being served.
These are the impacts of the wider cost of living crisis, affecting families who are above the threshold for a free school meal.
That takes us to the main policy push from the sector across 2022; campaigns for the extension of free school meal eligibility really gained traction.
More than 800,000 children living in poverty in England are currently ineligible for free school meals, due to having a household income of over £7,400 before benefits. These families may be forced into the decision between feeding their children or paying their energy bills.
(Thankfully,) in Scotland and now also Wales, the roll out of Universal Primary Free School Meals has continued, helping to combat food insecurity facing children in those devolved nations. I know new challenges for providers have appeared with this roll out, and I’m looking forward to learning about them, but overall this is a really positive step for school food policy, making sure more children receive those healthy, nutritious meals.
All of us here will know too well that hungry children cannot learn.
Yet the UK Government has continued to have its head stuck in the sand relating to England.
That’s really disappointing, when the sector has been so strong and unified in message.
While there are elements of quick relief that could be provided - funding increases for example - school caterers and the wider public sector needs more than that. We need to make sure that long-term these issues are fixed, so that public sector caterers are never using the words “existential” again.
13 years of managed decline of public services has left us vulnerable to those “shocks”, like Ukraine and Covid before it. We need more than just last minute frenzies of sticking-plaster politics. We need to be more resilient.
That means taking on low pay and workforce issues, delivering a serious long-term plan to get the economy growing again, making sure that working people don’t pay the costs of the Tory cycle of doom.
We need to start making those fairer choices. And in this moment of chaos, I know that there is a growing impatience for a change in the way this country is governed.
And with an election en route – this year or next, who knows – it's time to really get demanding, and bring forward the enthusiasm for school meals.
I know that experts and campaigners – some of you in this room today – will keep mounting the pressure upon the Government, and of course the opposition parties too. And know I am doing my bit in this regard also.
I know that without the people in this room who work so hard to keep public services afloat, that this country would grind to a halt. The issues that matter to you need to be in the public eye, and they need to be at the door of the Government.
I hope to be able to work with many of you going forward in the weeks, months and years to come. I’m sure I will.