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Food Price Rises: Public Sector Food Provision

Volume 828: debated on Monday 27 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of food price rises on the provision of food by public sector organisations, in particular the nutrient levels of school lunches.

My Lords, we recognise cost pressures that schools and suppliers are facing. Officials are holding regular meetings with food industry representatives, covering issues including public sector food supplies. Schools manage their own contracts, using government funding to procure services from private sector caterers or local authorities, or to fund their in-house catering. The school food standards set out in regulations what schools should and should not serve to children during the school day.

My Lords, in December, food price inflation was 16.9%. It is a fact that this has caused a reduction in the portion size and nutritional value of school meals. This affects poorer children the most and contributes to health inequalities. Because of the price of energy, some schools are providing only cold meals. Does the Minister accept that the Government’s policies on school food standards, using British food and supporting SMEs, will not be achieved unless there is realistic and regular renegotiation of these contracts? Will the Minister please look into this?

As always, I will be interested if the noble Baroness has specific examples to share with the department, as that is not the picture we are getting. The picture that we are getting is that there are, of course, pressures on food inflation, but clear standards on nutritional value continue to be met. There is a real focus on reducing waste and, in some cases, that means reducing the number of options available to pupils, but not the quality.

My Lords, based on research we have done at Feeding Britain, I can say that around £88 million every year does not get through to the school food budget. One reason is that poorer pupils are unable to roll over their daily allowance. It has also been true that councils, to a lesser extent, and schools themselves—because food is something that you can reduce while still delivering a meal—have been using some of that money because they are so cash-strapped. No blame is afforded here, because budgets everywhere are very tight, but would the Minister agree that this is an extremely false economy? Will she agree to talk to me and Feeding Britain about whether we can review it and ring-fence the money? As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, pointed out, the amount is not enough at the moment to make sure that these meals are healthy and nutritious. For many kids, it is all that they are getting.

I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness that schools need to use the funding provided for them to feed the children eligible for free school meals. We are monitoring the implementation of our policies, and we are investing in a pilot training scheme for school governors so that they are well equipped to understand what is happening in their schools.

My Lords, what could be easier to source and more nutritious than locally produced food? Will my noble friend the Minister and the Government endeavour to ensure that there are more locally sourced meat, fruit and vegetables available for schools and other public sector organisations, such as prisons and military garrisons?

The Government absolutely support the spirit of my noble friend’s remarks in terms of supporting the local economy and making sure that children and others—in hospitals and elsewhere—who receive government-funded meals get the highest quality. It is important, however, that they have the flexibility and discretion to decide for themselves how they source the food.

My Lords, a recent open letter to the Prime Minister from the heads of leading public health organisations, supported by a number of noble Lords, including myself, called for the extension of free school meals and the national school breakfast programme on the grounds that access to nutritious food at school improves children’s health, development and ability to learn. At a time when low-income parents are struggling more than ever, will the Government use the forthcoming Budget to ensure that children have access to nutritious food from school dinners and breakfasts?

This Government have made huge strides in extending access to free school meals, with the introduction of universal infant free school meals and the introduction of free school meals in further education. More than a third of pupils are now eligible for free school meals. We keep the situation under constant review.

My Lords, security is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of any Government, yet with huge hikes in the cost of food from overseas, our domestic market is declining. Take, for example, the outstanding market garden sector in the Lea Valley in my diocese. About 10% of them had to close in the last year because of the cost of heating. What are the Government going to do to ensure that those market gardens are able to sustain themselves, to guarantee our basic food security in this country?

I cannot comment on the specific market gardens to which the right reverend Prelate refers, but I absolutely get the spirit of his question. He will be aware that Defra works very closely with the food industry in this country to monitor where risks are in relation to supply and to make sure that any disruption can be addressed.

My Lords, we would all acknowledge that a lot of good work operates through schools in providing nutritious meals, but we should be aware that schools are not in session for about a quarter of the year. What action are the Government taking to try to tackle the problem of holiday hunger for vulnerable children?

The Government have committed £200 million to the holiday activities and food fund. It reached about 600,000 children in the summer of 2021, which is the last year for which we have data. I visited a primary school in Ipswich on Friday that was using that funding very creatively through the holidays, working with families to make sure that it reached the children who needed it most.

My Lords, a study published by Imperial College last year highlighted that, across primary and secondary schools, 64% of calories consumed by pupils at lunchtime were from ultra-processed food. Given the long-term health implications that this presents and the important role played by good nutrition in pupil attainment, does the Minister intend to take on board the report’s recommendation to cap the levels of ultra-processed food in school meals?

Our guidelines are clear in respect of the quality of food that children should receive in their lunchtime meals. They are clear about the range of fruit, vegetables, carbohydrates and protein that they should get.

My noble friend the Minister is right to point out the huge inflationary pressures on school budgets and other budgets in the public sector. At the same time, can she reassure us that everything is being done to prioritise the purchase by the public sector of British-sourced products to support our own hard-pressed farming community?

I think that I in part addressed that point in response to my noble friend earlier. We absolutely are supporting our domestic farmers and food production industry, but equally it is important that we give flexibility to schools to respond to opportunities in their local markets. They understand their needs and can deliver for the children in their care.

My Lords, the Minister will agree that we want all children to have a nutritional hot dinner, particularly at lunchtime. She will also be aware that, when the coalition Government introduced free meals at key stage 1, there was a massive take-up of young people having a hot school dinner. Now we see a large and increasing number of families coming to school with a packed lunch, which in many cases is not nutritional and certainly is not warm. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that packed lunches are of nutritional value to the children who bring them into school?

There is obviously a limit to the extent to which the Government should direct individual parents on the food they provide for their children. We are ambitious for our children’s understanding of the importance of nutrition and for their own opportunities to cook at school and become more confident in how to cook nutritious and affordable food. Again, I am aware of a number of examples of schools working closely with parents to equip them with those skills not just for lunchtime but for the evening.