My Lords, the Government already support a whole-school approach to nutrition and the health and well-being of children. Following the publication of the School Food Plan, we have brought in new school-food standards. Cooking is in the national curriculum for the first time and we have brought in universal free school meals for infants. Together with the other actions from the plan, including guidance for head teachers on a whole-school approach, we are helping to transform nutrition and food culture in our schools.
My Lords, to help tackle the UK’s child obesity epidemic, we must have a national nutrition strategy, starting with school meals and the teaching of nutrition in all schools. This is the finding in the latest report of the All-Party Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood, which is published today. To give children that long-term vitality, will the Government adopt a universal free-school-meals policy to ensure that the quality of food consumed tackles obesity and the rising cost to the NHS? Will they also consider a radical new approach to the teaching of nutrition in schools to empower children to learn about a healthy diet? Finally, will the Minister meet me to discuss further findings in the report, which is entitled Food in School and the Teaching of Food?
My Lords, I welcome today’s report by the All-Party Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood. I commend the noble Baroness’s work in championing these issues and would be delighted to meet her on this.
Following the successful introduction of universal free school meals for infants last September, all school children have the opportunity to eat a healthy, nutritious lunch. This Government’s manifesto supported the continuation of this policy. However, we are in a tight fiscal position and have no plans to extend it. Throughout primary schooling and until the end of key stage 3, food and nutrition education is already a curriculum requirement and, as part of Ofsted’s new common assessment framework, inspectors will consider how schools and school leaders are promoting healthy eating across the school. The Government’s manifesto committed to taking action on child obesity, and I know that this is a key focus for both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health. The Government will put forward their plans to address the challenge of obesity in due course, and plan to publish a national obesity framework before the end of the year.
What are the Government doing about vitamin deficiency among children, given that the CMO’s report recommended the Healthy Start vitamin programme and that 40% of young children are thought to be vitamin D deficient, particularly as the deficiency may be linked to the metabolic syndrome and high blood pressure? It has even been suggested that a vitamin D supplement may improve some of the core symptoms of autism, which can create major behavioural issues in a classroom.
My Lords, I am sure that most Members of this House and many other people would accept that providing healthy food in schools, particularly to very young children, is an entirely laudable aim. What information does the Minister have about schools that are struggling to deliver this, both practically and financially, and what help is being offered to those that are having those problems?
We have provided £185 million for cooking facilities for schools and we are training cooks in this area. More schoolchildren have this opportunity. It is reaching 85% of schoolchildren. Not all take it up—not all have been in school on the day in question—but it is receiving comprehensive coverage.
My Lords, much of the focus has been on mainstream schools and children’s nutrition. The pupils at Critchill special school in Frome grow their own vegetables, have chickens and manage their own eggs. On the day I visited they were making a tasty soup from their own vegetables and using maths, English and other skills. Is this excellent example of whole-school nutrition in special schools being disseminated elsewhere in the country?
The noble Baroness raises an excellent point, particularly in relation to schools for special educational needs. I know that caring for animals and growing plants can be very helpful. The School Food Plan refers to all schools being encouraged to have plant-growing programmes. I can assure her that across the country there are many other examples of what she has talked about.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will have heard the wake-up call from the head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, last week when he told us that one in 10 children are obese when they begin primary school, and that that rises to one in five when they leave. Currently we spend more on obesity-related healthcare than we do on the police, the Prison Service, the fire service and the criminal justice system. Does he agree that child obesity cannot be tackled in isolation? What do the Government propose to do across all departments so that we have a proper strategy to respond to what Mr Stevens now calls the new smoking?
I agree entirely with the noble Lord about the seriousness of this issue. We are doing what we can in schools. As I said, this is a key focus for the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health. Many of my department’s priorities are designed around the need to reduce childhood obesity. However, despite our programmes, it still seems to be an issue. We will be publishing our plan on this shortly.
My Lords, when my noble friend receives the copious briefing on sugar that he would expect after this debate, could he make sure that he also pays close attention to the substitutes that may replace it when it is reduced in consumption and what the effect of those is on the health of the people who consume them?