Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 372-379)



  Q372  Chairman: Colleagues, may I welcome you to this meeting of the Committee and apologise for the slight delay in starting. We are, as you will note, in some degree of difficulty in terms of our quorum, which is three. I apologise for that. For a variety of reasons we are very short on members. But you have the quality here today: you will get some very intelligent questions, at least from Dr Taylor and Mr Burns, if not from me. Could I thank you for your cooperation with the inquiry and for your written evidence, which has been most helpful. We are most grateful to you. I wonder if I could ask you each to introduce yourselves briefly to the Committee and say a little bit about your organisation and the work you do.

  Ms Dalmeny: My name is Kath Dalmeny. I work for the Food Commission as policy officer. A lot of my work is to do with marketing to children. We track and monitor and study marketing to children, looking both at real examples but also at the kinds of papers that are put around by the industry discussing the future of marketing to children. I have brought along today some examples of things that are marketing in schools.

  Ms Longfield: I am Jeanette Longfield. I am the coordinator of Sustain, which is the Alliance for Better Food and Farming. We do two things specifically around children and food. One is our Grab 5 project, which promotes fruit and vegetables to primary school children in low income areas, and the other is a campaign to protect children against junk food advertising, which is collecting national organisations to support that campaign.

  Mr Almond: My name is Len Almond and I am director of British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health. I am based at Loughborough University and British Heart Foundation have charged me to put physical activity on the health agenda.

  Mr Lincoln: My name is Paul Lincoln, I am Chief Executive of the National Heart Forum. Our organisation is a national alliance of about 45 national organisations, royal colleges, health organisations, social policy, dedicated towards the primary prevention of coronary heart disease.

  Mr Osborne: I am Paul Osborne, the project director for Safe Routes to Schools for Sustrans. Sustrans is a sustainable transport charity. We find practical ways of helping people to walk, cycle or use public transport as an alternative to the car. Safe Routes to Schools is a national programme where we are working closely with local authorities and schools, again to seek alternatives for the car for school journeys.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

  Q373  Dr Taylor: I am ever so sorry that there are so few of us. I really feel quite embarrassed. The only reason I am not at Brent East, where everybody else is, is that there are so many independent candidates there I would not know which to support! However, we have just been on a fascinating visit to some of the schools in Leeds and Bradford Bulls rugby clubs, so we are right in the mood for talking about children and obesity. The first section is on food, diet and marketing, so it is mainly to Jeanette and Kath, I think, for the first few questions. We believe that some schools are given as little as 40 pence per day to feed pupils. What can they do with that?

  Ms Longfield: Almost nothing. You end up with the cheapest of the cheap meat and fish products. It is very difficult to provide enough fruit and vegetables for that. You go for absolutely lowest common denominator. It is a struggle and the people who are involved in school meal services trying to produce decent food on those budgets find it very depressing because they want to give better quality.

  Q374  Dr Taylor: So it will be the cheapest nuggets that we hear about being imported.

  Ms Longfield: Absolutely.

  Q375  Dr Taylor: What sort of numbers of schools are faced with that problem, that 40 pence?

  Ms Longfield: The difficulty is that the situation is not being monitored centrally, so nobody has any comprehensive information. It is all very anecdotal. Certainly some schools will have more money than that; some schools might even—heaven help us—have less. But part of the problem is that that kind of data is not collected centrally, it is not monitored. On the nutritional quality of the meals, even though there are nutritional standards we have no idea how many schools are meeting those. There is some research in train currently to try to find that out, but we do not have the basic data against which to compare what we are now currently collecting so we do not know whether it has got better or worse since the guidelines were introduced. It is all terribly unsatisfactory.

  Q376  Dr Taylor: Should one of our recommendations be that records are kept of how much individual schools are able to spend?

  Ms Longfield: And also what difference that makes to the quality of the meals—because it is perfectly possible to have a lot of money and still produce rubbish, so you need to have quality control as well. But, yes, I cannot imagine anybody in this room could feed themselves adequately for lunch on 40 pence.

  Q377  Chairman: When we were in Leeds last week, I went to a school and met the lady involved, from the authority point of view, in the bulk purchase of school meals. Does your organisation have any views on whether bulk purchasing arrangements might be a way forward in respect of healthier eating? Do you have any contact with, collectively, some of these bulk purchasers? Do you see that some of them are actually making changes for the better, albeit within the budgetary constraints to which we have just referred?

  Ms Longfield: It is interesting because some of the contacts we do have with people working on school meals have been people who have opted out of the bulk contracting system. They have been extraordinarily successful in taking their school meal system out of the bulk contracting system altogether and making their own arrangements. That requires incredible amounts of motivation and determination and organisation, and really quite extraordinary individuals to do that, but, where they do do it, it is very successful—and not only in nutritional terms but also in terms of buying the produce locally and supporting the local rural economy and so on. But it is quite difficult to imagine how you would expect every school to have a remarkable person or set of people in them like in the projects of which we are aware. I suppose in the larger context it is going to need to be some kind of collective arrangement for most schools, simply because you cannot expect everybody to be that extraordinary.

  Q378  Chairman: I think it was Leeds, but I might be wrong, where we learned about the way in which, through the bulk purchasing, there is an effort to grow the food locally and it has been possible actually to show the youngsters in certain schools the whole process of food production which has been a learning experience as well as being linked into the healthy schools agenda.

  Ms Longfield: One of the publications that Sustain has recently produced is precisely on public sector catering in schools, hospitals and social services and so on, showing precisely that—how you can set the public sector contract so that it will not only produce safe food and nutritious food but also food that is purchased, as far as possible, from the local area, which supports a local economy. It is not easy and it would be helpful if there was more money and it would be helpful if the legislation was less ambiguous and so on and so forth, but it is still possible to do it, even within current constraints, given sufficient support, motivation and so on.

  Ms Dalmeny: Could I also add something to that. If you are talking about doing some national audit of what is going on in school meals, it is important to look at the total food provision within the school. It is not just about the school meals, it is also about breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, vending machines, the kinds of foods that are promoted in sampling schemes—because some schools are now participating in commercial sampling schemes. So it is looking at it as a whole school and looking not only at the food that is actually being presented but the message that goes with it to the children about what counts as a healthy diet.

  Dr Taylor: We have some experience with breakfast clubs. I think each one of us went to a different school and for 30 pence I had some cornflakes and some extraordinarily soggy crumpets.

  Chairman: He has not told you that he had bacon and eggs in the hotel beforehand!

  Q379  Dr Taylor: I did not. Moving on to Kath specifically: a parents' panel, what sort of issues do they raise?

  Ms Dalmeny: We run a campaign called the Parents' Jury which is over 1,500 parents who write into us about the things that they find problematic about children's food and children's food marketing, also praising some of the more positive efforts to promote healthier food to children. A lot of the things they write in about are things like sponsored exercise books being given out in the school—and I have some examples in my box here to show you—with things like fizzy drinks being promoted directly to children as young as maybe five/six years old. They feel that is flying under their own parental control on their message of what counts as healthy food.

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