Sharon Hodgson, Member of UK Parliament – Shadow Minister for Children, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food – (APPG)
My interest in improving the school food on offer in our schools has stemmed from my work as a local Member of Parliament, where I have regularly visited schools in my constituency over my 11 years as an elected representative and seeing first-hand the often excellent food on offer to children – as well as the often shocking packed lunches some children are eating.
One moment that stands out for me is when visiting a school in my constituency, and watching as the children on free school meals were segregated from their peers with packed lunches who were sat in rows on PE benches facing each other’s back with their packed lunches on their lap at a time that should have been a good social learning experience enjoyed by all. It was then that I realised that something had to be done about the way we delivered food in our schools, not only by making it healthier but also addressing the stigma associated with free school meals and to ensure children all ate together no matter if on packed lunches or hot dinners.
This was all reaffirmed when I went on a fact-finding delegation to Sweden, where I saw exactly how it could be done. I remember watching as the children got ready for lunchtime, all walking into the school canteen and individually choosing the food they wanted to eat and then sitting as a class with their teacher. There was no segregation of children or issues about who was in receipt of a free school meal, and most importantly all of the food was healthy and nutritious – and free. There wasn’t a packed lunch box in sight.
It was after this delegation that I returned to Parliament, at the height of Jamie Oliver’s healthy school food campaign and began to work my socks off to lobby the then Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls, to improve the food on offer in our schools and most importantly roll-out universal free school meals.
This concerted campaigning led to the universal free school meals pilots in Durham and Newham in 2009, the roll-out of more was sadly scrapped when the Coalition Government took power. It was with this in mind that I established the APPG School Food, a cross-party group of Parliamentarians in both the Commons and the Lords, with the support of our dedicated and passionate stakeholders, to raise awareness of food and related issues in our schools.
Since the APPG’s inception we have had many successes, including: seeing many of our ideas and thoughts included in the School Food Plan, authored by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, in 2013; seeing universal infant free school meals rolled-out and protected last year in the wake of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, and; working to address child holiday hunger through the Holiday Hunger Task Group we created to develop policy and best practice to tackle this pertinent issue.
Though we have had many successes over the years, there is still so much more that we can do to improve the food we feed our children during the school day, however we now believe that it is during non-term time we need to pay particular attention so that the hard work achieved during the school term is not reversed.
That’s why I welcome International School Meals Day every year, as it is a day that we can all rally together and raise awareness of the benefits of school food and celebrate the importance of children having a nutritious meal at lunchtime so that they can benefit from the education they receive in the classroom and become the best they can possibly be on entering adulthood.