(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.
New data from the NHS has shown that more people are waiting a month for a GP appointment than at any time since when records began in 2017.
1,988 people in Washington and Sunderland West faced a wait of 28 days or more to see a GP in October alone.
A further 5,503 people had to wait more than two weeks.
Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West, pledged to work with the British Heart Foundation (BHF) to help make ‘science fiction a reality’ during a special parliamentary reception.
Image copyright British Heart Foundation, 2022.
A child’s access to healthy food should not be quibbled over.
I wish to express my utter and complete condemnation for Vladimir Putin and his administration as it wages an invasion in Ukraine, killing innocent civilians and wounding many more. I have been working closely with colleagues to ensure that the Government offers the best route to asylum for Ukrainian refugees fleeing their homes as their brave soldiers repel the Russian invaders.
But, closer to home, this week I raised the issue of regional food inequality in Parliament.
Sharon Hodgson MP, Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West, participated in the British Obesity Society's podcast "Fat Chat".
Photo Credit: NK-Photography, 2017
During the podcast, Sharon spoke about her personal experiences with her weight and health, and also explained how her own experiences have influenced her in her role as Shadow Minister for Public Health.
You can listen on iTunes here
You can listen on SoundCloud here
The podcast is 28 minutes.
This Clean Air Day, Sharon Hodgson MP is encouraging her constituents to help improve air quality for all by ditching their cars and getting active.
Constituents in Washington and Sunderland West are encouraged to cycle or walk when they can. This will limit their pollution contribution but also protect their heart health, as air pollution levels can be significantly higher inside a car.
As well as encouraging individual action, Sharon Hodgson MP is also calling for national action to make the UK’s air safe to breathe, especially for her constituents with heart and circulatory conditions whose health is at increased risk from air pollution.
Air pollution is now the largest environmental risk factor linked to deaths in England, with the majority of air-pollution related deaths worldwide (58%) caused by heart disease or stroke. The British Heart Foundation’s (BHF) research has shed light on how health-harmful pollutants such as particulate matter (PM) - small particles found in emissions from diesel engines and wood burning stoves- can cause damage to people’s cardiovascular health and increase the risk of potentially deadly heart attacks and stroke.
Sharon Hodgson MP attended a photo-call organised by the BHF in Parliament ahead of Clean Air Day to express her support for action that will ensure that the health of people living in Washington and Sunderland West isn’t at risk from the air they breathe.
The BHF is urging government to make this happen by adopting World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines into UK law.
The charity believes it is vital that the UK’s air quality legislation has the protection of health at its core. This will ensure that efforts to reduce air pollution achieve meaningful outcomes, particularly for vulnerable groups whose lives are impacted by outdoor air pollution.
The EU air quality limits that the UK currently follows are equal to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended upper limits for nitrogen dioxide but are less stringent than the WHO’s guidelines for health-harmful pollutants.
Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West, said:
“It’s important that we have better air quality so my constituents living with a heart and circulatory condition don’t need to worry about dirty air damaging their health when they leave the house. Research has shown that even the smallest reduction can make a big difference in preventing new cases of coronary heart disease.
“I’m supporting the call for all effective action to be taken to clean up our air.”
Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive of the British Heart Foundation, said:
“It’s great to have the support of Sharon Hodgson MP with encouraging action to promote and protect the nation’s heart health from the effects of air pollution.
“We know that to have good heart and circulatory health, people need to be active. But BHF-funded research suggests that poor air quality can cancel out the cardiovascular benefits of exercise in vulnerable people. Further BHF-funded research has also shown that particulate matter increases the risk of potentially fatal complications for people with a heart or circulatory condition.
“To reduce this risk, we urgently need WHO limits for PM to be adopted into new air quality legislation as soon as possible.”
You can learn more about the BHF’s research and work on air pollution by visiting https://www.bhf.org.uk/airpollutionpolicy
As Shadow Minister for Public Health, Sharon spoke during a secondary legislation committee on the approval of the Draft Draft Local Authorities (Public Health Functions and Entry to Premises by Local Healthwatch Representatives) (amendment) Regulations 2017. These regulations allow for the continued mandation for health visitors to undertake universal health visitor reviews. Whilst they were not opposed, Sharon did raise concerns about the watering down of who can do health visitor reviews and pressed the Government to keep an eye on this concern raised by health visitors themselves.
Speech pasted below:
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. The Opposition are pleased that the Government have finally brought these regulations before us, especially with the end-date for the mandation of health visitor reviews being so close—it will be in five days’ time, to be exact. I welcome a lot of what the Minister said.
The regulations are welcome as they continue the mandation of health visitor reviews, which are an important part of an early intervention strategy. We will therefore not seek to divide the Committee. However, I have concerns about health visiting and what the regulations will do that I wish to raise with the Minister and on which I seek reassurance.
This year marks 155 years since the start of health visiting, which has had a range of different guises over the years, in 1862. It is important that we protect this long and proud career and give it the support it deserves. It is therefore concerning to see in the provision relating to regulation 5B of the principal regulations a potential watering down of who can do universal health visitor reviews, allowing other qualified health professionals to conduct reviews instead of health visitors. That is concerning when there is anecdotal evidence that health visitors are being told to delegate to other professionals, but are doing so only because they are so overstretched and busy with their huge workloads. That does not mean other health professionals cannot be complementary to the reviews, but the core reviews must be done by health visitors, because they are the specialists and it is their job to do it after being trained to undertake that role.
A health visitor’s role should not be diminished. I hope the Minister agrees and will assure me that she will closely monitor that issue, as I certainly will, to ensure that health visiting is not a diminished profession and that we do not see a reduction in the quality of health visitor reviews. I look forward to her response.
Sharon Hodgson MP's report - Jan-Feb 2017 number 92
Read Sharon Hodgson MP's report - News from Westminster - Jan-Feb 2017 number 92
Sharon Hodgson MP's report - Oct-Nov 2016 number 89
Read Sharon Hodgson MP's report - News from Westminster - Oct-Nov 2016 number 89
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, Sharon has published a cross-party supported position paper on packed lunches in schools which comes ahead of the publication of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy.
The position paper sets out the need for the Government to consider the introduction of a holistic, non-mandatory packed lunch standards framework as part of the ‘whole school approach’ to food in schools and to help address childhood obesity by consulting with children, parents, teachers, unions and the catering sector.
The APPG also recommends that providing parents and schools with new resources, or raising awareness of existing resources, on a healthy and affordable packed lunch – such as example menus and recipes – would be beneficial to the ‘whole school approach’ to food in schools and will go some way to help address family tensions and conflicts.
The APPG has identified that though hot and healthy school meals should be the way forward, there are still many children who go to school with a packed lunch. Analysis of data by the APPG shows that packed lunches are eaten by nearly 56.5% of pupils in Key Stage 2; however, as identified in the School Food Plan from 2013, only 1% of packed lunches meet nutritional standards.
The APPG believes that non-mandatory guidelines should be in place that ensure children are eating healthy food which allows parents and teachers to buy into this ethos to address this disparity. The APPG’s position paper also supports the House of Common’s Health Select Committee’s Childhood Obesity; Brave and Bold Action report which called for standards for packed lunches.
The introduction of a standards framework has been welcomed by head teachers, with 90% of head teachers surveyed in a study by Taylor Shaw in 2015 showing that head teachers welcomed support to encourage parents to send their children to school with a healthy packed lunch.
A case study from Leeds showed evidence of family tension due to unclear guidance on what kinds of food should and should not be included in a packed lunch with one child on free school meals quoted as saying: “It’s unfair they [children on packed lunches] can eat chocolate in their packed lunches [and] I have to have my free school meal.”
The support for packed lunch standards comes as part of the wider debate around the burgeoning crisis of childhood obesity and the Government’s pending Childhood Obesity Strategy which seeks to address the issue of 1 in 5 children in reception class being classed as overweight which then rises to 1 in 3 by the time they reach Year 6.
Following the publication of the position paper, Sharon said:
"Though we have made great strides forward in recent years to improve the quality of healthy food on offer in our schools, there is still a disparity between those children on healthy school meals and those who bring in a packed lunch.
"As a parent myself, I know all too well the on-going battle most mornings between a parent and a child to negotiate what food goes into a packed lunch and what constitutes healthy food. That is why the Government should help parents and teachers who want to support the ‘whole school approach’ on healthier eating by offering a clear standards framework for them to buy into so that children are eating healthy food, regardless of whether on school meals or packed lunches. This will not only benefit a child's education, but also their behaviour, wellbeing and health.
“There is no better moment than now, with the upcoming Childhood Obesity Strategy’s publication in the coming weeks ahead, to ensure that packed lunches are considered by the Government as part of the wider, holistic package developed to help reverse the worrying trends of childhood obesity in this country.”
You can view the APPG's position paper here.