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NHS National Health Inequalities Improvement Programme

Volume 830: debated on Thursday 25 May 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether the NHS National Health Inequalities Improvement Programme plans to review and improve the nutrition of free school meals.

The focus of the NHS healthcare inequalities improvement programme is the delivery of healthcare services. Free school meals are outside its remit. The Department for Education continues to keep school food standards under review. The current standards provide a robust yet flexible framework to ensure that pupils in England continue to receive high-quality and nutritious food. Developing healthy habits early in life can influence health in childhood and reduce the risk of diet-related diseases in later life.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Who actually is responsible if one tries to change the formulation of school meals for children? In previous debates on obesity, he has stressed the importance of reducing calories. The Government have estimated the number of calories that need to go down to get child obesity down. As we are giving children so much sugar in school meals and such highly processed food, why do they not run a trial with less sugar and healthier food than we are doing at the moment to try to deliver on the calorie objective, which he has talked about previously?

First, I thank the noble Lord for the work that he does in this space; I know it is something very close to his heart. It is the school foods standards that set and define the formulation in the food and drinks provided by schools. That is all through the school day: breakfast, lunch and afterwards. They were due to be reviewed around the time of Covid in 2019; clearly, that did not happen then, so we are looking again at whether we should be reviewing those. Precisely in that, we shall be looking at levels of calorific intake.

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, in the short term a poor diet can lead to stress, inability to concentrate and tiredness. In the longer term it can lead to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and indeed heart disease. Of course, my noble friend will be aware that there are great inequalities within ethnic minorities. Can he say what the Government are doing to reduce the inequalities and ensure that micronutrients play an important part in the promotion of the food strategy?

First, I wish my noble friend a happy birthday. I totally support her question. The most important thing with regard to inequalities—funnily enough, this was the answer to an earlier question—is the use of free school meals. I think we can all welcome the fact that 37.5% of children now receive free school meals and therefore a nutritious start to life. Clearly, that is the best way to make sure that children, particularly those with potential inequalities, are getting a healthy start in life, as well as the under-fours clubs to make sure that they get healthy food.

My Lords, according to Henry Dimbleby, the Government’s public food procurement system is dominated by a few very large corporations, creating little incentive for innovation or improvement. Can the Minister give us an update on the trials in south-west England, in which small, local, high-quality food suppliers can get into public procurement—for example, to schools and hospitals? I understand that early evidence reports better quality and choice at no increased cost.

Absolutely. Again, there are also very good grounds for locally sourcing in that way in terms of the environment and reducing the carbon footprint. I must admit to not being very familiar with some of the pilots mentioned, so I will find out and get back to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the latest data from the National Child Measurement Programme showed that among 10 to 11 year-olds at school, almost 38% were overweight, of whom nearly two-thirds were obese. Do the Government recognise that this represents severe malnutrition in that cohort and that public health should be involved in the planning and inspection of school meals to try to improve that figure? These children will become health problems for the whole of the nation going forward unless their malnutrition is corrected.

I agree with the noble Baroness. It was said in answer to a Question not so long ago that the hypothesis about much of the reduction in increases in life expectancy in the G7 nations, apart from Japan, is that it is very much linked to obesity, and that starts early on in life. Education is a key part of that, but the things we are starting to do as regards the placement of foods in supermarkets are already having an impact, and the reaction of the industry to that has been the reformulation of some foods which has already taken out 14% of sugar and 20% of salt—but clearly there is a lot more to be done.

My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend the Minister and reassure him that I was not trying to answer the previous question. However, in answer to a previous question, my noble friend the Minister mentioned that the responsibility of school meals and nutrition lies with the Department for Education. Is he aware of any conversations and interaction between the Department for Education, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, and the Department of Health and Social Care?

Absolutely. We work very closely together. The Healthy Start programme gives seven fruits a day to kids up to the age of seven to make sure that they get fruit and vegetables, and that is very much a joint initiative. Clearly, we need to be joined at the hip on some things, but as regards school meals, the DfE takes the lead.

My Lords, the levelling up White Paper promised to design and test a new approach to ensure compliance with school food standards. Although pilot schemes were meant to start last September, a recent Written Answer from the Schools Minister stated that

“standards are being kept under review”,

with no sign of the pilot scheme. Have the Government given up on their promise and does the Minister consider the existing standards for school meals and the means of compliance sufficient to tackle nutritional inequalities across the country?

As mentioned previously, the review did not happen because of Covid, and it is very much within the plans that it is time to look at school standards again. Clearly, that is key to making sure that there is a healthy diet in schools, and of course that goes across the board.

My Lords, can the Minister explain whether the Department of Health is working with other departments to consider funding families entitled to free school meals with additional allowances during the summer vacation in the light of the current cost of food and the need, as he has acknowledged, to provide adequate nutrition to promote health in young people?

Yes. It is worth reiterating that the 37.5% free school meal level is an achievement, as is the fact that all infant schoolchildren receive free school meals—higher than ever before. However, the noble Baroness is correct in terms of what happens during holidays. That is why we have the holiday activity fund, which in the summer holidays, for instance, provides meals for four of the weeks, as well as for another week in winter. Clearly, we need to keep that under review to make sure that that is sufficient.

My Lords, currently some Jewish children are having to survive due to the funding formula on a bagel every dinnertime. Is that acceptable and, if not, which Minister will sort it out?

I hope that every child would have something more nutritious and healthier than just a bagel. I will happily discuss that with the noble Lord; I am not familiar with that particular case but it is something I will happily take up.

My Lords, in response to the noble Baroness’s question on the South West Food Hub, I was on the advisory board until last week. That project has now folded, purely through lack of engagement from the Cabinet Office and the procurement services. Can the Minister speak to his colleagues at the Cabinet Office to see whether they can re-engage in these dynamic procurement activities for local farmers?

I would be happy to. I need to find out more first, and I would be delighted if there was some information or if we could meet on this, but I would be happy to take it up.

The Minister has twice cited the figure of 37.5% of children now receiving free school meals, which, as he rightly says, is an achievement of a sort. However, if the standard of food those children are receiving is insufficiently good—and there appears to be some evidence of that from the information that has been going around the House this morning—adding to the number on the list of those receiving free school meals, although admirable in terms of the numbers, may be contributing to the problem. Does the Minister agree?

I do not think anyone would say that the current school food standards are insufficient. I think the feeling is that it has been a while since they were changed because of Covid, and it is time to ask whether improvements can be made, because this is an ever-evolving situation. So I would not agree with that categorisation, but we should indeed always be looking to see whether we can make better choices.