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School Meals for Children

Volume 837: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of recent remarks by a head teacher in Southampton criticising the quality of school meals for children.

My Lords, I am aware of the recent remarks from a Southampton head teacher. We cannot comment on individual catering arrangements, as arrangements with particular suppliers are made at a local level. Governors and trustees are responsible for ensuring compliance with the school food standards. We encourage local authorities and schools to work with their caterers to address any quality issues when they arise, to ensure that children receive nutritious meals in school.

I am grateful to the Minister for her Answer. I am grateful too to Mr Ashley for raising this issue, and to the Times and the BBC for picking up on it last week. This is a topic of great concern to all of us. One in three children now leaving primary school is overweight or obese. This, in part, links back not only to what they are eating at home but to an area where the Government have some influence and control, which is school meals. It was 2014 when the regulations were last reviewed; it is time they were looked at again. Much has changed since then. Children are eating far too much sugar these days. We need to reduce it; we need to look after their health and stop abusing them in this way. Will the Government act on that?

The Government believe that the school food standards are very clear. Schools must ensure that they provide children with healthy food and drink options, that they get sufficient energy and nutrition across the school day, and they clearly restrict foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar.

My Lords, in 1825 the great politician Jean Brillat-Savarin coined the phrase “You are what you eat”. It is concerning that, according to research, ultra-processed food makes up 64% of the average UK school lunch. What is the Government’s strategy to both teach and empower children to make the right food choices?

Cooking and nutrition are firmly within the national curriculum: in design and technology they are compulsory between key stages 1 and 3, they aim to teach children how to cook and the principles of healthy eating and nutrition. It is also picked up in the science curriculum; indeed, through the Oak National Academy, we funded a module on cooking and nutrition that will equip children leaving school to be able to cook at least six predominantly savoury recipes that will support a healthy diet.

My Lords, is not the problem that the tendering process for school meals is based on cost and not quality? Of course, there is another side to school meals, and that is the famous packed lunch. The experience of teachers and head teachers of packed lunches is that they are mainly filled with bags of crisps, chocolate biscuits, fruit drinks et cetera—not necessarily fruit drinks but canned drinks. Has the Minister any idea how we can ensure that packed lunches as well become a healthy nutritional meal?

The noble Lord touches on issues relating to how parents bring up their children, which is obviously delicate territory for the Government to pronounce too firmly on. Our messaging around the risks of obesity and on healthy lifestyles more broadly is obviously picked up by parents. Our family hubs also look at things such as nutrition. On the first part of his remarks, I should say that the department centrally offers a service called Get Help Buying for Schools that supports schools to negotiate high-quality and affordable catering arrangements.

I am very pleased to be a member of the committee sitting in this House at the moment looking at ultra-processed foods and obesity. From its evidence sessions that are in the public domain already, the diets of children in school meals, packed lunches and the food that they eat at home should worry everyone in this House. Given what my noble friend has replied today, can I gently suggest that her civil servants please follow the evidence being taken by the House?

I should clarify that I did not in any way want to diminish the importance of addressing ultra-processed foods, but the school food standards already restrict foods that are described as low-quality reformed or reconstituted foods, which include ultra-processed foods.

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who has eaten more school meals than I care to mention, most of them very good, and as someone who rather unwillingly teaches food at school at the moment, where we do a lot about nutrition. However, the research from Northumbria University has found that a quarter-pint of milk a day has an enormously beneficial effect on children’s confidence and concentration and against obesity. What plans do the Government have to increase the free school milk programme?

We know that milk is, as the noble Lord says, excellent for children’s growth and development. As part of the school food standards, lower-fat milk or lactose-reduced milk must be made available for children who want it to drink at least once a day during school hours, and it must be provided free of charge to all pupils eligible for free school meals. Schools can offer milk as many times as they wish, but it must be free to infants and benefit-based free school meal pupils when offered as part of a school meal.

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Brooke and the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, I am a member of the Food, Diet and Obesity Committee. There are many concerning issues, one being the influence of the food industry. Can the Minister have urgent discussions with the food industry so that it fully understands the impact of high-processed foods and the need for urgent reformulation, to reduce salt and sugar in those foods and to improve the health and well-being of all our young people?

I am more than happy to take that back to the department, for Ministers who are directly responsible for this area to talk to the food industry. The noble Baroness will be aware that there has been some success in reducing sugar in breakfast cereals, yoghurts, fromage frais and soft drinks. However, I share her concerns.

As my noble friend hints, exercise has a very positive impact on physical health and, crucially, on mental health.

My Lords, anyone who saw the pictures in the newspaper article to which the Question refers will be fairly appalled at the quality of the food offered to the children. The head teacher concerned asked how hard it was to bake a potato. Is the real problem that children do not learn how to cook any more and therefore do not see jobs in institutional catering as a viable career? What action is the DfE taking to ensure that the skills exist to meet government guidelines that state that school food should be nutritious, look good and taste delicious?

I am not sure whether I have to declare my interest as the mother of a chef. I think careers in hospitality are great, but I might be slightly biased. I have already responded on where food and healthy eating fit within the curriculum. We take this very seriously. The specific case that was alluded to in the media related to a PFI contract. Obviously, that gives greater constraints on the ability of a school to negotiate with, or potentially even change, suppliers.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the best source of food for schools is locally sourced, sustainably grown produce from identifiable farms that have an educational relationship with the school through which they teach children how and where their food is made? If so, will she encourage local procurement of school food?

I am more than happy to encourage that. Just to take it one stage further, I encourage schools that have the space to follow the example of some schools that I have visited that have their own allotments and grow some of their own food. Some of them keep chickens, for example, and eat their own eggs for breakfast. That is also a great approach.