Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Report of the Children’s Future Food inquiry.
The children’s future food inquiry has for the past year listened to young people tell us about their experiences of food insecurity. The result is the children’s #Right2Food charter, which was launched two weeks ago in Westminster with Dame Emma Thompson, who has done a fantastic job as the inquiry’s ambassador.
I pay particular tribute to Lindsay Graham, who has been running holiday hunger schemes and lobbying for a long time—she was the inspiration behind this—the Food Foundation, which did a lot of the work, and particularly the young ambassadors, whose involvement was absolutely fantastic. A number of other Members present were members of the panel, as was I, so I do not want to take up too much time. It is important that they contribute, particularly as some of them were more involved than I was, so I will try to be relatively brief.
I will start by underlining the scale of the problem, which led us to feel the need to do the inquiry. One in three children in the UK—4.1 million—live in relative poverty, and the number living in absolute poverty has increased. UNICEF estimates that 2.5 million of those children live in food insecurity, meaning that at times their families cannot afford to put food on the table or cannot buy the full variety of foods needed for a healthy diet. The Food Foundation, using UNICEF data, says that the UK has the highest percentage in the European Union of children under 15 living in a severely food insecure household, which we ought to be deeply ashamed of as a country.
Hunger has an impact on children’s mental and physical health; it affects their attainment at school, their attendance and their behaviour if they are too tired, too hungry or exist on a diet of junk food. Severe obesity at ages 10 to 11 is at its highest level since records began—I heard that we now have more obese 11-year-olds than the United States. Almost one in five children are obese by the time they start primary school, and one in three by the time they start secondary school. Typically, the most deprived areas have double the rate of childhood obesity compared with the least deprived, and one and a half times the rate of underweight children. It hits both ways; it is about malnutrition and obesity.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which served on the inquiry panel, recently published an update to its 2017 “State of Child Health” report. Two years on, it highlights grave concern that no progress has been made on reducing child poverty and inequality in the UK. We cannot tackle these health problems, particularly childhood obesity, without tackling child food poverty.
Evidence for the children’s future food inquiry was gathered from workshops with nearly 400 children in 13 different locations across the UK. It also included an academic review of child food insecurity, polling of young people, more than 100 submissions from people working with children, a UK-wide policy review and a secondary analysis of Government data on the affordability of a healthy diet. Children told the inquiry how debilitating constant hunger can be and how it affects their ability to concentrate in class. There were children who had been forced to shoplift, scavenge or barter, just so that they could eat.
Since securing the debate, I have been contacted by a number of people who wanted to add to the information that the inquiry was given. One new teacher emailed me and told me of giving Christmas dinner to
“a suspected severely neglected child”
“also has many learning difficulties. I have never seen a child eat his food so quickly (the term ‘wolf it down’ does not compare to what I saw). I asked him why he was eating it so quickly and he said that he hadn’t had a meal this big in days. It was not a grand-sized meal in the slightest. Once he had completed eating the Christmas dinner, he pulled out one of those plastic Chinese takeaway boxes with the remnants of some broken-up crisps (they looked like Doritos) and he asked if he could then eat them. I said he had just eaten a full meal and was he still hungry—he said yes, he was and that he didn’t know it was Christmas dinner day, and that they would have been his lunch.”
The teacher goes on to say:
“It’s awful the situation we are seeing. It cannot go on any longer.”
Parliament’s digital engagement programme has done a brilliant job of reaching out to people for comments using social media and has sent me a list of responses. Some are from people personally affected by food poverty while others are from people working at food banks, teachers or headteachers at schools, or people involved in trying to help families. Many of the responses highlight problems with the benefits system, particularly work capability assessments and sanctions, and especially the roll-out of universal credit. One respondent working in family law said
“families are poorer today than I have ever seen”.
Another, who volunteers at a food bank, said
“this problem seems to be escalating at an alarming rate”,
and that they are
“seeing a massive increase in referrals since the introduction of universal credit in the area”.
Many of those experiencing food poverty were in employment. Some spoke of the particular difficulty in catering for special diets—for example if their children were gluten intolerant; a child with autism who had to have a special diet was mentioned—and others spoke of having to choose between heating and eating. Laura said:
“It has been the worst of times. Sat at home, considering if I should top up gas and electric; but then if I do, what will myself, my partner and my 2-year-old little boy eat? What is the use of having gas with no food to cook? But what is the use of having food but no gas?”
Another respondent who is in ill health with respiratory and arthritic illness, so has to keep the house warm, said:
“Our food budget is the only variable I’m able to hold back on. We feed a family of four on £100 a month”.
A woman from Reading said that she and her young daughter
“are literally being fed by mum”.
She has a full-time job, but after taxes and childcare she takes home £30, which goes on travel to work. Sarah, a grandmother, says:
“I have become broke with debt trying to bail my daughter and grandchildren out.”
The children’s future food inquiry has five key asks, as set out in the children’s #Right2Food charter. First, we ask for the healthy lunch guarantee. Children said that the £2.30 free school meal credit was not enough to afford healthier lunches or to cover breakfast if they did not get it at home. The Minister was at the launch with Emma Thompson and the children ambassadors, so he will have heard a lot of this. Today we heard from Citizens UK that children on free school meals lose out on £65 million a year because they are not given change if they buy a meal that comes under that daily limit; the money is kept by meal providers at the end of the day, rather than being given back to the child to roll over and spend the next day.
Our inquiry found that 23% of children who are not eligible for free school meals—because their household income is deemed just that bit too high, or because they have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status—go without lunch because they cannot afford it. Many families of children who have no recourse to public funds who approached their local authority for section 17 support were refused. Some schools step in and pay for the child’s meals, but some, particularly in areas of high immigration, cannot afford to do so. We heard that packed lunches are often much less healthy than a cooked meal; just 1% of school packed lunches meet school food standards. I think the example that stuck in all our minds was that of the child whose packed lunch apparently consisted of just two cold fish fingers.
Many families struggle to feed children over the school holidays. The lost value of free school meals in the 13 weeks of holidays is approximately £150 per child, which is a lot of money for parents on low incomes to find, especially if they have more than one child. The inquiry makes a number of recommendations; it is quite detailed, and I am sure that other panel members will go into detail on some of the other recommendations, so I will outline only a few of them.
The inquiry recommends: providing free nursery meals to children who are entitled to free childcare, and introducing mandatory food standards in all nurseries, as in Northern Ireland; increasing the offer of free school meals to a wider group of children, including migrant and undocumented children without recourse to public funds; expanding the school fruit and vegetable scheme so that all children can benefit; and supporting holiday provision. Many of the details of the places that were successful in applying for this year’s Holiday hunger pilots were announced earlier today. We are disappointed that Bristol did not qualify, which I will mention again later.
Secondly, we ask for the healthy food minimum, which is about supporting parents and carers to put healthy food on the table. The inquiry recommends expanding the Healthy Start voucher scheme. At the moment it reaches only a third of young children living in poverty, and the voucher is worth only £3.10 a week, which I understand has not been adjusted since 2009. It is not index-linked, and it is not aligned with the Government’s own estimates of the cost of fruit and vegetables, so clearly something needs to be done to ensure that it is meaningful.
We also need to look at housing. Nearly 2% of households in England live with children in private rented accommodation that fails to meet the decent homes standard. Families in bed and breakfast, such as those supported under section 17, will not have access to cooking facilities. Even in other rented accommodation, there can be limited access to such facilities or cooking equipment, or families cannot afford gas or electricity.
Thirdly, we are calling for a new, independent children’s food watchdog, the role of which would include monitoring and inspection of school and nursery meals, development of a national menu designed by young people to meet school food standards, and looking at the school eating environment. I was surprised by the extent to which that came up during in the inquiry. Children, particularly in secondary schools, said that they were being rushed during lunchtimes, did not have time to finish their meals and were being forced to go back to the classroom having not finished eating. Such things could easily be looked at. Also, the Government still have not introduced their healthy rating scheme, which they promised in their childhood obesity plan would be introduced by September 2017. I hope that the Minister will update us on that.
The fourth ask of the children’s #Right2Food charter is headlined “Health before profits”. It is about prioritising children’s health before the profits of those big business that try to sell them junk food. We know what a pervasive effect they can have. That would include stopping marketing aimed at children on packaging, such as breakfast cereals with cartoon characters; ending promotions of unhealthy foods and replacing them with health warnings; and tackling the marketing of junk food on television.
People in many quarters are calling for a 9 pm watershed, because we know that a lot of children do not watch only CBeebies or wherever the children’s TV programmes are; they are watching reality TV shows and programmes at 7 and 8 o’clock at night. A watershed of 9 o’clock is therefore proposed, so that 59% of food and drink adverts shown during family viewing time would be banned from children’s TV. That shows how children are exposed to all those adverts banned on children’s TV but not at times when the whole family is watching a programme.
On fast food outlets near schools, I know that a lot of places are looking at exclusion zones—the standard is about 400 metres, but a lot are considering 800 metres. One of the suggestions was to increase business rates for fast food outlets near schools, using the funding to support food education and extended school day projects.
Fifthly, “Stop the stigma” is about ensuring that children who experience food insecurity and have to have free school meals do not feel ashamed about that. One of the things that stuck in my mind when talking to some pupils was that their school had a free salad bar. The idea was that the children could spend their money on the unhealthy food or go to the free salad bar, but there was a stigma attached—people were seen as only going to the salad bar because they were poor, not because they wanted healthy food. We need to look at that.
Talk about that ask included renaming free school meals as the school meal allowance, increasing the allowance to at least £4 per day, and allowing it to be carried over, as I said. Another recommendation was banning water being sold in schools. It is shocking that some school dining halls do not have water fountains. If children were thirsty, they had to spend what little they had—£2.30—on bottled water. The plastic alone means that such bottles should not be there, but the fact that a school cannot provide free tap water is pretty shocking. Also, poverty-proofing our schools would ensure that all children may take part in activities such as cooking, and those on free school meals should be kept anonymous.
I want to draw to a close soon, but I will first say a few things about what we are doing in my city with the Feeding Bristol pilot, which was set up a couple of years ago and stems from the Feeding Britain project that came out of the all-party group on hunger and food poverty and the work of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). We had a breakfast club initiative, in phase 1 of which we provided free food to 15 schools in high need. That was led by the chief executive of FareShare, which, as the Minister knows, takes in surplus food to distribute it to people in need. In phase 2, which will start later this year, we will target a further 20 schools in high need, increasing the nutritional value of the food distributed and offering it for free to about 30 to 50 children per school. Also under the auspices of Feeding Bristol, for the Christmas just gone FareShare distributed 56 free hampers across four children’s centres for those in most need.
We are also setting up FOOD—Food On Our Doorstep—clubs, based on a Manchester membership-type model, which is funded by Family Action. Two clubs will launch in July and the plan is for another two later this year. The clubs are a way of providing a top-up of groceries at very low cost—families pay about £3.50 a week per customer to get groceries worth about £15 to £20. The first two clubs will based in two children’s centres. We will then find another two sites. We have also funded two community engagement workers through the Big Lottery. They are based in community organisations and provide support to families in need, helping them to build independence into their food security.
Holiday hunger is the final thing to mention. As I said, we are rather disappointed that Bristol did not qualify for the funding this year; last year, we got £30,000 from the Department for Education, which we used to feed 2,200 children—a total of 15,000 meals—over the six-week summer holidays. The Minister’s office was in touch with me, because the announcement was made just gone midnight this morning, but I would be interested to know the criteria, because we felt that we did a good job with the money last year. We are now trying to crowd-source the funding and going out to city institutions because we want not only to replicate that this year, but to roll it out into something bigger.
A couple of weeks ago we had our huge annual Feeding Bristol event, with well over 100 people—perhaps 150—from all the organisations involved. That was not just people working in food banks and the charity sector but those involved in local food-growing projects, which we are keen on, or those who teach cooking skills or want to do communal cooking in cooking centres. The pilot is a brilliant initiative, and I know that we are not the only place trying to do such things.
The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, spoke out when expressing his disappointment at us not getting the funding again. He said:
“It is evidence of a defunct model of leadership where a city…has proven its commitment and ability to deliver, further plans are put in place but…they are dependent on London-based decision makers—who then took a judgment not to fund, which in turn poses a major challenge... Our efforts to end child hunger should not be undermined because we are thrust into a zero-sum competition with other cities and towns. What is more, it undermines the stated national objective.”
That is true. We did all we could to deliver the programme, and we are keen to roll it out, but this time I think in the south-west it was Plymouth that secured the funding, which is great, but it should be mainstreamed and not subject to the whim of bids.
The Minister came along to the launch, and he was praised for his willingness to engage. I know that he was keen to take part in the debate today. I hope that he has had a chance to reflect more on the findings and that he will come up with some firm commitments.