(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.
Sharon Hodgson MP's report - Nov-Dec 2022 number 156
Click on the picture above to read Sharon Hodgson MP's report - Nov-Dec 2022 number 156
Sharon Hodgson MP's report - Oct-Nov 2022 number 155
Click on the picture above to read Sharon Hodgson MP's report - number 155
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, Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food, recently visited the ‘Wear Here 4 Summer’ programme at Rickleton Cricket Club, Washington.
The ‘Wear Here 4 Summer’ programme, which is funded by the Department for Education’s Holiday Activity and Food Programme, has been supporting children and young people with a range of fun activities and food throughout the summer holidays.
The ‘Wear Here 4 Summer’ bus has been travelling around Sunderland bringing different activities to different areas across the city.
On Wednesday when Sharon visited, the children were taking part in a huge range of activities including smoothie making, boxing, boot camp and circus skills. There was also lots of hot and healthy food available.
The Holiday Activity and Food Programme was announced in 2020 by the Department for Education. It provides funding to Local Authorities. The funding covers Easter, summer and Christmas holidays in 2021 only.
Speaking at the ‘Wear Here 4 Summer’ bus, Sharon said:
“It was great to see the children and young people enjoying the Wear Here 4 Summer programme. They’ve had some fantastic activities and delicious food over the school holidays.
“As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food, I have been campaigning for many years for the Government to introduce funding for food and activities for children on the approximately 170 days a year when the school gates are shut.
“This programme will no doubt have had a positive impact on children across Sunderland this summer. That is why I believe the Government’s Holiday Activity and Food Programme should be available for all school holidays during the pandemic and beyond.”
Sharon Hodgson MP has today (Tuesday 16th June) welcomed the Government’s U-turn on funding free school meals over the summer holidays.
(Photo from National School Meals Week, 2018)
This U-turn follows the Labour Party’s ‘Holidays without Hunger’ campaign and Manchester United, Marcus Rashford’s letter to all MPs calling for the U-turn.
3,616 children in Washington and Sunderland West are eligible for Free School Meals and will benefit from the extension of funding for free school meals provision over the summer holidays.
With the added pressure of the Coronavirus crisis plunging families into deeper poverty and social distancing as well as added pressures raising questions on whether the usual holiday lunch schemes may run, many families are rightly concerned about how they will afford food during the summer holidays.
Sharon, who has been campaigning on free school meals since becoming an MP in 2005, said:
“Like Marcus Rashford, I grew up on free school meals, so I know how important they are to families on low incomes.
“That is why I set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food in 2010 to campaign for better free school meal provision.
“This isn’t a new problem, we know that some children go hungry during the summer holidays in ‘normal’ times. But we aren’t in ‘normal’ times.
“I welcome the Government’s U-turn on this, but they should never have delayed on this. They were shamed into backing down instead of doing the right thing in the first place.
“Children are at a heightened risk of going hungry this summer as the Covid-19 crisis hits family incomes, and charities and food banks struggle to provide the same level of holiday support.
“I will continue to join MPs, charities, organisations and Local Authorities to campaign to keep the importance of free school meals and holiday hunger on the agenda at all times, not just during a pandemic.”
Notes to Editors
1. Nearly 1.3 million children in England are eligible for free school meals which are usually provided in school during term-time. However, while schools have been closed during the Covid-19 pandemic a voucher scheme has been established instead. Schools are also able to provide alternative provision, such as food packs, which can be claimed for from the Department of Education.
2. The voucher scheme provides £15 worth of vouchers a week per child eligible for free school meals which can be redeemed in the following supermarkets: Aldi, Asda, M&S, McColl’s, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance-for-schools
3. In England’s poorest areas, summer holiday hunger schemes are being starved of cash, leaving many children short of food (2019) https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/aug/14/uk-holiday-hunger-schemes-deprived-children-summer
4. Labour’s ‘Holidays without Hunger’ campaign launched on Sunday 14th June. For more information click here: http://labour.org.uk/holidayswithouthunger/