(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.
Click on the picture above to read Sharon Hodgson MP's report - Nov-Dec 2021 number 145
Washington and Sunderland West MP Sharon Hodgson met with representatives from the National Deaf Children’s Society and a young deaf campaigner today (24 September) to talk about the future of deaf children’s education in the region.
Ella, 14, met Ms Hodgson at the Labour Party Annual Conference in Liverpool and the pair discussed key issues affecting deaf children, including vital education funding and the gap in attainment between deaf children and their hearing peers throughout the North East. The meeting comes as deaf children’s services across the country face cuts of £4 million this year.
"It was great to meet Ella and the National Deaf Children's Society team, to speak about the challenges deaf children face every day in classrooms up and down the country.
"It is shocking that there are so many deaf children in England in mainstream education who do not get the specialist support that they require.
"I wish Ella all the best in her education and campaigning to ensure that deaf children receive the support they need."
Jessica Reeves, Campaigns Manager at National Deaf Children’s Society, said:
“It’s great to see MPs like Sharon Hodgson coming to meet young deaf people to hear about the daily challenges they have to face.
“Deafness is not a learning disability and when deaf children get the support they need at school, there are no limits to what they can achieve. However, deaf children in the North East are currently falling a grade behind their hearing classmates at GCSE.
“Meetings like this are an excellent way for deaf children like Ella to talk to MPs about the barriers they face in their education and how we can all work together to overcome them.”
Sharon, in her role as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, is lending her support to the Make Rio Count National Fun Day on the 4th August 2016, the day before the start of the Rio Olympic Games.
This national fun day will highlight the good work of schools, charities, councils and others helping make provisions for children to get good food and free activities in the school holidays, and will coincide with the global nutrition summit in Rio, the day before the Olympic Games begin.
The global nutrition summit in Rio follows a similar summit held ahead of the London 2012 Olympics on nutrition and aims to build on the work being done internationally and nationally to address hunger and food insecurity.
The two specific asks from the Make Rio Count Fun Day, include:
- A new vision for food and nutrition security in the UK which delivers healthy, affordable sustainable diets for all;
- A targeted package to improve the life-chances of women and children most at risk of a poor diet, which includes:
- Increase the uptake and voucher value of the Healthy Start programme.
- Protect and improve child nutrition during the school holidays by piloting holiday provision for the UK’s most vulnerable children, and;
- Conduct an annual national measurement of household food insecurity.
This national fun day follows on from important work done by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School’s Food Holiday Hunger Task Group, which since its inception in 2013, has held a national conference in Sheffield on child holiday hunger, launched guidelines on providing food during holiday provision, written an update report on holiday hunger which highlights best practice around the country, and most recently, worked with Northumbria University to map holiday provision, which includes food provision, to identify where more support is needed to address child holiday hunger.
Following the launch of the National Fun Day, Sharon said:
“For many years now, I have worked alongside fellow Parliamentarians and experts in the world of children’s health, nutrition and education to ensure we finally end the issue of child hunger, including during the school holidays, and that is why I welcome the Make Rio Count national fun day to help raise awareness of what more can be done by the Government.
“The Government cannot attend this vital international conference and call for hunger to be addressed across the world, and not do anything to address it on our own doorstep. With evidence continuing to show that children return to school after the summer holidays malnourished and have fallen behind their more affluent peers in terms of their education, along with the rising use of food banks during the summer holidays, then it is high-time the Government did something about this.
“The government’s rhetoric on addressing hunger globally is welcome but inaction here in the UK cannot continue as it is detrimental to the future and the life chances of our children. That is why rhetoric on hunger in other countries must be replicated here in the UK and I hope that this national fun day can take us one step closer to seeing the Government finally address this important issue.”
You can find a flyer for the National Fun Day here.