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Children’s School Meals

Volume 829: debated on Monday 27 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review and revise the children’s school meal regulations to reduce the levels of processed sugar and to provide incentives to encourage the use of alternatives such as stevia.

My Lords, the school food standards regulate for food and drink provided at lunchtime and at other times of the school day. They restrict foods high in fat, salt and sugar. We believe that the current standards provide a robust yet flexible framework to ensure that pupils in England continue to receive high-quality and nutritious food that builds healthy eating habits for life. We are keeping the standards under review, including the use of sugar and sugar alternatives.

I am grateful to the Minister for saying that the Government are keeping it under review. Is she aware that we have the unhealthiest children in Europe? If the regulations are working, why is that the case? If she accepts that fact, will she go back and speak to the her department and the Department of Health and see whether we can get some progress along the lines of what happens in the Netherlands, where the producers and the Government come together to look at food reformulation, giving children healthier food and getting away from the inevitable decline, which we are suffering, into more obesity and type 2 diabetes?

I do recognise the figures to which the noble Lord refers with regard to the level of obesity—particularly shocking, perhaps, in our primary age children. The noble Lord will be aware that in 2019 we brought together a group of stakeholders to look at updating the standards. That was postponed for understandable reasons during Covid but my right honourable friend the Minister for School Standards is now looking at this very actively.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that nearly 1,600 children in England and Wales are suffering from type 2 diabetes—a disease that causes inflammation throughout the body and, if not treated properly, can cause kidney failure, heart attacks and other diseases in later life—and that a high proportion of these children come from the lower demographic groups? Can the Minister really say, hand on heart, that the Government are doing everything they can to address the shortcomings of the diets of poorer children in our society?

The Government have made a great deal of progress in this area, which is not to say that there is not more to do. The noble Baroness will be familiar with the so-called sugar tax, which has led to a decrease of almost half in the amount of sugar in soft drinks between 2015 and 2020. Most recently, we introduced regulations restricting the location of products with high fat, salt and sugar in supermarkets, which is critical in making sure that children do not access those foods.

My Lords, one-quarter of two to 15 year-olds are obese or overweight. Despite Governments publishing 14 obesity strategies containing 689 policies between 1992 and 2020, the prevalence has not reduced. Does my noble friend accept that, unless radical changes are made to support healthier eating habits, the increasing rates of obesity and related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, are likely to break the NHS?

The Government continue to take a number of steps. The point I would make to my noble friend—she understands this better than I do—is that obesity is a fantastically complicated problem caused by a number of different factors, of which calorie intake is, obviously, one part, but activity is another. That is why we were so pleased to confirm recently the £600 million for the PE and sport premium for primary schools over the next two years.

My Lords, the Minister is probably aware of figures released last week, which showed that, in the early 1950s, the UK had one of the longest life expectancies in the world. Recent figures suggest that we are now 29th in the league table. Only the US is performing worse in comparative terms than the UK, largely because of diet problems. Can the Minister assure me that, in taking forward the work that she has just mentioned, the education sector will recognise that it has to work very hard with the health sector to develop huge programmes of health improvement embracing young people?

The Department for Education has already been working closely with our colleagues in the Department of Health. I absolutely agree with the point that the noble Lord is making.

My Lords, just to correct the Minister, all new science shows that it is calorie intake of the wrong kind, such as in ultra-processed food, that causes obesity. While exercise keeps you healthy, it does not take off weight unless you are prepared to run a marathon every day. One thing the Government could do if they are serious about this is to extend the salary limit at which you can get free school meals. Currently, you have to be on universal credit, earning under £7,500—that is fantastically little—before your child gets a healthy, decent meal once a day—made up, ideally, of decent ingredients. Can the Government look at this again?

As the noble Baroness knows, we keep the eligibility for free school meals under constant review, but the House is also aware that eligibility for free school meals has never been higher. This Government introduced universal infant free school meals and free school meals in further education. Now, in schools, 1.9 million of the most disadvantaged pupils are eligible for free school meals.

My Lords, demonising fat is the wrong attitude. Clearly, we need to avoid saturated fats but other fats are actually good for us and limit obesity, because when fat goes into the duodenum it releases hormones that inhibit the emptying of the stomach, giving us the feeling of being full, so we stop eating. Fat should not be demonised by the Department of Health or anyone else.

I am not aware that anyone is demonising fat, but there is a very serious issue about education. The percentage of children who are either overweight or obese rose very sharply during lockdown. We must absolutely do everything we can in our schools and health services. We also need to make sure that parents really understand the implications of what they feed their children.

My Lords, last year research from Imperial College found that ultra-processed foods accounted for 62% of the calories in school meals. Given the widespread obesity epidemic in our schools—that the Minister recognises has got worse since lockdown—and an NHS buckling under demand it can no longer meet, can the Minister tell the House when the Government will next update the current school food standards to include guidance on ultra-processed foods and other foods that could be contributing to the obesity epidemic?

Just to make sure that I have not confused the House, levels of obesity and children who are overweight rose very sharply during lockdown. Levels have come back, depending on the age group, to pretty much where they were pre lockdown—I just say that for clarity. I cannot say when the standards might be reviewed, but they are designed to give those in schools, and those supplying schools with school food, enough flexibility to make choices to give children healthy meals. As we heard in an earlier Question, there is also an opportunity here to make sure that we keep waste to an absolute minimum, so that the investment can go into the quality of food for children.

But is it not true that in the days of the coalition Government, the regulations on school meals were weakened, particularly in 2014? That weakening of the regulations allowed much more sugar to be added to some of the school meals.

—but I do not accept that they were weakened. As I say, there is sensible flexibility to allow schools to respond to their local community.

My Lords, the findings of the House of Lords Select Committee report Hungry for Change found that to pay for government healthy eating recommendations, the poorest 10% of UK households would need to spend 74% of their post-housing disposable income on food. The report also found that the cost of healthy eating did not factor in the calculation of benefit rates. Would the Minister urge her colleagues in government to make sure that realistic benefit rates pay for a healthy diet, even for the poorest people?

I am more than happy to share those figures on benefit rates with my noble friend sitting next to me on the Front Bench. More seriously, there are so many variables in this. I remind the House of the scale of support that this Government have given every household over 2022-23 and 2023-24: an average of over £3,300 per UK household.