Sharon Hodgson speaking in the Backbench Business Debate on the Government's upcoming Childhood Obesity Strategy - 21st January 2016
Image copyright Parliamentary Recording Unit 2016
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, Sharon spoke about the need for school food to be seen as an integral part of the Government's upcoming Childhood Obesity Strategy by looking at the evidence already out there of the benefits of a healthy school meal, especially one that is free, along with addressing child holiday hunger - which has become a growing problem in the UK in recent years.
Read Sharon's speech in Hansard here: Sharon Hodgson Childhood Obesity Strategy Debate 2016
Text pasted below:
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on proposing and securing this important debate, and she will be pleased to hear that I agreed with almost everything she said. Many here in the Chamber will be aware of my strongly held passion to provide all children with a hot and healthy school meal, especially one that is free. The debate around the Government’s impending childhood obesity strategy, both here in Parliament and in the outside world, has focused on the reformulation of foods that are high in sugar and salt and the introduction of a sugar tax. Although I support those measures, I want quickly to discuss how school food can play a significant role in addressing the obesity crisis facing our children today.
I want to say at the outset—I am sure people are thinking this, if not here then definitely on social media—that I am rather overweight myself and that some may say I should practise what I preach. I do try. But that is why I am so passionate about this agenda: I know how much harder this becomes as you get older. I was allowed to adopt bad habits that are hard to break, and that shows why we need to educate the next generation to do much better.
School food has played a role in public policy for more than 100 years. It was first discussed in this place in 1906 when Fred Jowett, former Member of Parliament for Bradford West, used his maiden speech in the Chamber to launch his campaign to introduce free school meals when compulsory education was being rolled out. That led to the passing of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906, which was originally Jowett’s private Member’s Bill.
Jowett’s campaign was driven by his experience as a member of the Bradford school board, where he witnessed the malnourishment of children who then fell behind their more affluent peers. Here we are, more than 100 years later, and those arguments are still being made today.
I was just thinking the same as my hon. Friend about how far we have come in some respects but not in others. She will be aware of the private Member’s Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). Does she support it?
Yes, that private Member’s Bill is an excellent initiative, and should be adopted by the Government and local authorities. It is very simple to share the data that we already have on families who are entitled to benefits, to ensure that the entitlement of their children to the pupil premium is not lost when universal free school meals are rolled out. That is a very important point.
Although we do not always think about obesity in this way, it is a form of malnourishment. What we are seeing today is very similar to what we saw more than 100 years ago, with children lacking the right nutrients to see them living a healthy childhood and growing into healthy adults. That is especially concerning given that today more than one third of children are leaving school overweight or obese.
The school setting is one of the most important interventions in a child’s life; it is where we nurture and educate future generations. Why should we not feed these children so that they are fuelled to receive the best education and life chances possible? That notion was strongly supported by the previous Labour Government, who introduced a raft of measures that addressed the food eaten by children in our schools. They included nutrition-based school food standards that provide children with the proper nutrition to learn, fully-costed plans to extend our universal free school meal pilots, and the introduction of healthy, practical cooking on the national curriculum.
Although much, or all, of those measures were scrapped when the coalition Government were formed in 2010, it was very welcome when, in 2013, the school food plan was published, calling for the reinstatement of lots of those measures as well as new and improved measures in our schools to address the health of our children. Those included introducing food-based standards for all schools, training head teachers in the benefits of food and nutrition, improving Ofsted inspections on school food, and the roll-out of universal free school meals for primary school children, when funding was found.
As we know, that funding was found, thanks to David Laws and the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg). Fortunately, universal infant free school meals were secured by the Chancellor in the comprehensive spending review. All those measures came out of concerns for the health of our children and the growing obesity crisis, especially given that 57% of children were not eating school lunches. Some were opting to take in packed lunches, only 1% of which met the nutritional standards of a hot lunch, while others were opting to go off site to eat junk food at local takeaways.
As research has found, health problems associated with being overweight or obese cost the NHS more than £5 billion a year, and, with obesity rates continuing to rise for 11 to 15-year-olds, especially in deprived areas, it is now clearer than ever that we need seriously to address childhood obesity.
Giving children a healthy and balanced diet during the school day can only be a positive intervention in helping to address obesity. I cannot stress how strongly I believe that one of the most important interventions to help address health issues in childhood is universal free school meals.
The hon. Lady mentioned that children are consuming junk food from outlets near schools. Does she believe that councils should have powers, as part of planning guidance, to take action on junk food outlets being so close to schools?
Yes, I do. I really welcome that intervention, because it not only makes the point, but stresses it very strongly. Some councils are very good and introduce byelaws to ensure that burger vans cannot pull up outside a school, and that, if there is already a number of takeaway shops nearby, no more can open. Matters such as that need to be addressed by councils.
The pilots introduced by the previous Labour Government in Durham and Newham to look into the benefits of universal free school meals found many benefits to a child’s health, and research continues now that we have universal infant school meals. The pilots in Durham and Newham found a 23% uptake in vegetable consumption at lunchtime and a steep decline in the typical unhealthy packed lunch foods. For example, there was a 16% decline in soft drinks and an 18% decline in crisps. Those are all-important figures that the Government should remember, and both the Department of Health and Department for Education should look further into how best they can use the vehicle of universal free school meals to help improve children’s health.
Although universal free school meals are protected in the Government’s comprehensive spending review—this followed a concerted campaign by school food campaigners, myself and others in the House—there is another area that the Government must consider when looking to improve the health of our children: holiday hunger. Children are in school for just 190 days of the year, and the rest—a total of 170 days—is totally down to their parents. Some may say that that is how it should be and that when we lock the school gates for the holidays it is none of our business what children eat, whether they eat or what they get up to. None the less, with the growing use of food banks in school holidays and the reports that children return from the longer school holidays noticeably thinner and unhealthier, the issue is one that we can no longer ignore.
If there is a push for better food provision in our schools, then we need to be doing much more during the holidays so as not to undo the hard work that goes into improving the life chances of children during term time. That is why the school food all-party group, which I chair, has established a holiday hunger task group, which last year launched its “Filling the Holiday Gap” guidelines to provide organisations and local authorities wishing to provide food during holidays with the resources to offer healthy and nutritious food. Late last year, it published its update report, which called for action to be taken by the Government.
When the Government’s childhood obesity strategy is published, I hope that there will be significant mention of the benefits that school food, especially universal free school meals, can have on a child’s health, and of how it can be used to address the growing childhood obesity crisis. There is evidence out there to support using universal free school meal provision to its fullest, instead of squandering its potential, to improve the health of our children.
This is a moment when the Government can really make a difference to children’s lives and I hope that all options and avenues will be pursued so that children are given the healthy food that they need to fuel their education and to make them as healthy a version of themselves as possible so that they grow into fit and healthy adults.