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Schools: Food Nutrition Standards

Volume 768: debated on Thursday 11 February 2016

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to legislate to ensure that food and drink provided in all types of schools follow Food Standards Agency food and nutritional guidelines.

My Lords, last year the Government introduced new statutory school food standards as a result of the school food plan. They were based on food groups to make it easier for cooks to prepare healthy, tasty dishes without needing a computer program to determine the necessary level of nutrients and are easier for parents to understand. They severely restrict foods high in fat, salt and sugar and have resulted, for instance, in children eating more vegetables.

No doubt the Minister will be pleased and delighted with the success of free school meals at key stage 1. Will the Government consider extending that to key stage 2, perhaps paid for by a sugar tax—which, incidentally, would help the 84% of young people in the north-west who suffer from dental decay and would save the National Health Service £30 million a year on teeth operations?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord’s comment about the success of universal infant free school meals, which is resulting in 1.3 million more children getting a healthy meal every day. We have funded that considerably, including for new kitchens. In secondary schools healthy food is generally available and we are doing all we can to make sure that, where it is not, it is made available.

Which guidelines are schools following? They cannot be following the Food Standards Agency nutritional guidelines because one of the first acts of the coalition in 2010 was to remove from the Food Standards Agency any and all work related to nutrition. Who is doing the guidelines? Is it now done behind closed doors in the Department of Health, where policy is not done openly as it is in the FSA?

The Government are undermining free school meals for up to key stage 1, which was a Liberal Democrat achievement in the coalition Government, by starving the programme of cash. Why are the Government going to remove the grants to small primary schools that enable them to deliver these hot meals to children? How will that help nutrition for those children for whom this is the only decent, nutritional meal they get in the whole day?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that we have paid an extra £33 million to small schools to enable them to engage in this programme. It was always intended as transitional funding to help schools put their service on a sustainable footing and we believe that that has been done.

My Lords, in view of the widespread desire to help our milk producers and of the nutritional benefits, has the time come to consider reintroducing compulsory milk in our schools, which helped to make so many of us healthy?

My noble friend reminds me that I must have drunk at least three or four pints of milk a day in those days. I will certainly take this back for consideration.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many children come to school without having had breakfast? What is the provision of school milk? Some children are even getting rickets.

The noble Baroness raises an extremely good point. It is deeply concerning that many children seem to come to school not having eaten properly, which cannot help their concentration in school. We have funded a Magic Breakfast programme which has resulted in nearly 200 new schools in disadvantaged areas offering breakfast clubs. It is focused on areas where free school meals are 35% or more in the schools. The programme has been very successful and we are looking at it further.

My Lords, academies established prior to 2010 and those established from June 2014 have clauses in their funding agreements stating that their schools must comply with national food standards, but those academies established in the years in between do not have such clauses. Can the Minister explain that anomaly and inform noble Lords what he intends to do to end it?

The noble Lord is absolutely right: academies opened between September 2010 and July 2014, of which there were 3,900, do not technically have to follow the school food standards. But those standards were introduced only a year ago. Over the last year, 1,400 of the schools have voluntarily signed up to them, and we are encouraging many more to do so. We believe that most academies follow a healthy eating strategy. Indeed, the School Food Plan authors said that some of the best food they found was in academies. We do not think it is necessary to legislate further.

My Lords, if free milk is to be made available again in schools, with the Minister confirm that it would not be compulsory? For some of us it contains memories of a cruel and unusual punishment.

My Lords, in his first response my noble friend talked about new guidelines coming in last year that reduced the amounts of fat, salt and sugar in school diets. Could he tell the House what percentage reductions occurred in each of those three categories?

I cannot. I am happy to write to the noble Lord, but I believe that the amount of sugar cannot be more than 5%. I will write with details.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in paying tribute to dinner ladies, who provide a very important relationship to children, and who, perhaps through that relationship, can encourage children to eat well and healthily?

I entirely agree with the noble Earl. Dinner ladies, along with everyone who works in school kitchens and dining rooms, deserve praise. I feel very strongly that food in schools is important for the concentration level of our pupils.