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Food: Fruit and Vegetables

Volume 804: debated on Monday 6 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to increase the consumption of fruit and vegetables by (1) children, and (2) adults.

The Government are committed to encouraging children and adults to eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. Healthy Start vouchers enable low-income and disadvantaged families to purchase fruit and vegetables. Mandatory school food standards and the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme also encourage fruit and vegetable consumption. Public Health England encourages the eating of fruit and vegetables through the Eatwell Guide, catering guidance and marketing campaigns, including Start4Life, Change4Life and One You.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer and declare my interests, as set out in the register. As noble Lords know, diets low in fruit and vegetables are now directly associated with 20,000 deaths a year in the UK. Despite the Government’s costly Five a Day campaign, our vegetable consumption is steadily declining and now equals what it was in the 1970s, with only 28% of adults eating the recommended amounts. First, what are the Government’s new plans to promote fruit and vegetables to adults?

Secondly, Professor Greta Defeyter, a colleague of mine at Feeding Britain, has discovered a dramatic reduction in disadvantaged children’s daily fruit and vegetable intake since the suspension of the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme. Can the Minister give both a date for the scheme’s return and a figure for the money that would have been spent on the scheme since March this year, but has not?

My Lords, I pay testimony to the hard work of the noble Baroness in this important area. The schemes she mentions have been incredibly impactful and this subject is very important. The progress made by the Start4Life, Change4Life and Eatwell programmes has been encouraging, as it has raised awareness of options for children and adults. The battle they face against decisions people make about their diet is extremely tough, but we remain committed to those programmes and will continue to invest in them.

I ask the Minister what work the department has undertaken to explore the impact of fresh fruit and vegetables on the development of mental health in young people. In particular, what impact has there been from their being deprived of that during this period of home-schooling?

My noble friend touches on an interesting area. I cannot answer it precisely. I am not sure that we have taken any assessment of the effect of eating vegetables and fruit during the lockdown, but I will find out from the department and write to the noble Lord.

Can the Minister clarify where responsibility lies for overseeing the nutritional quality of food delivered to children eligible for free school meals? During Covid, reports have circulated on social media of packages containing crisps, chocolate biscuits and a block of fat marked “for cooking only”. In response to a letter by leading food policy experts, sent to both Defra and Public Health England, each body seemed to indicate that the other should be held responsible. Does the Minister agree that, without clarity on this, the focus on good nutrition is at risk and accountability too easily sidestepped?

The noble Baroness is right to cast a spotlight on an apparent area of policy confusion. Labelling is normally associated with Defra, and the provision of school meals with the Department for Education. If there is ambiguity about that, I would be happy to chase it down for the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme is a good scheme. My limited research suggests that children in year groups not currently eligible for the scheme miss their fruit and vegetables. Will the Government therefore consider extending it to all primary-age classes on reinstatement? Will the Minister undertake to work with teachers and the Royal Horticultural Society to promote gardening to grow vegetables, on school sites, for consumption by children?

I also pay tribute to the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme. However, it falls outside the remit of the Department of Health, so I do not have details about the scheme to hand, but I would be glad to track them down and throw my weight behind it.

My Lords, in the past we have seen government-sponsored television advertising on specific themes. The Covid-19 pandemic is an excellent example. Diabetes is on the increase and, in extreme cases, leads to limb amputations, which are at a frightening rate. Given the proven links between the consumption of fruit and vegetables and good health, would the Minister sponsor such a scheme of television advertising for healthy eating, among his government colleagues?

The noble Baroness is right about the effects of diabetes, and the impact of Covid on those with diabetes has been profound. It is described well in the PHE report and is a source of enormous sadness. The Government are looking at ways to react to the Covid pandemic, but my instincts are to regard it as an inflection point for the nation’s health. The Government will look at ways to mark this moment with a suitable campaign to encourage healthy eating.

My Lords, the Minister may be aware of the pioneering work of the American nutritionist Clara M Davis, in the 1920s, who found that just-weaned infants, allowed to choose their own food from a range of healthy natural options, chose a balanced highly nutritious diet and enjoyed it. But our children see a continual parade on their screens and in the shops of highly processed food of low nutritional quality. Does the Minister not think that we need to create space, in their stomachs and minds, to allow the healthy fruit and vegetables in?

The noble Baroness does me a great service to point out the good work of Clara M Davis, who I was not aware of previously. She makes a very good point: the effect of advertising on children in school is profound—and not just on children but on adults, as well. The danger of ring-fencing children is that they do not learn how to make proper choices in the long term. That is why the emphasis of our work is on ensuring that children learn the difference between good and bad food, learn how to make the right decisions and learn the habits that can set them up for a lifetime.

My Lords, this subject is one of many covered in the House of Lords report published today by the Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, called Hungry for Change. I hope my noble friend has already been briefed by his civil servants on this. Will he work with his fellow Ministers in Defra to get the food industry to make available a wider range of vegetables—not just pre-packaged carrots and other vegetables, all of the same size, shape and colour—and at a more affordable price?

I thank my noble friend for reminding me of the important Hungry for Change report; I pay tribute to it and to its recommendations. If I understand his question correctly, the food given to schoolchildren falls within the realm of the Department for Education. He makes an important point about offering variety and a wide range of foods, and I am sure that that is on the department’s agenda.

My Lords, home production of both fruit and vegetables is declining, with last year being the lowest for 20 years in vegetable production. If we do achieve an increase in consumption, much of that food will come from increased imports from countries that are water deficient. Will the Minister reassure the House that the Government have a cross-departmental strategy to address this, leading to increased consumption matched by increased production?

The noble Lord is quite right about the home production of food. During the Covid epidemic, Project Defend was put together to ensure that, as a country, we have resilient supply chains for key products, including food. The project will look at this area to assess whether interventions are necessary and will co-ordinate cross-governmental action.