The government’s new food strategy offers a ‘paltry’ £250 budget to every English public school to teach healthy eating, and ignores most of Henry Dimbleby’s plans to improve child nutrition, campaigners say.
They say with children being microwaved and cold meals by schools grappling with the cost of living crisis, a stronger response is needed.
A leaked copy of the strategy, seen by the Guardian, shows limited ambition to tackle food poverty and childhood obesity, with few new announcements.
The white paper refers to a £5million fund for a ‘school kitchen revolution’, but that equates to around £250 for each state school to teach pupils to cook healthy food.
It disappointed campaigners, who hoped that criticism from Henry Dimbleby in 2020 and last year, which recommended an expansion of free school meals and nutrition standards for school food, would be heeded.
Instead, the government has vaguely pledged to keep eligibility for free school meals under review.
Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, said: ‘The most disappointing part of the white paper is the failure to extend the right to free school meals.
“We are approaching a million poor children who do not receive free school meals. There are gaping holes in the nutrition safety net and vulnerable children are slipping through.
“At the moment, there are mandatory food nutrition standards for schools and hospitals, but there is no compliance monitoring. We estimate that 60% of secondary schools fail to provide the nutrition standards that children deserve.
“Caterers are reaching a tipping point where it’s really hard to maintain quality. We’ve heard of microwaved meals instead of ready meals to save on energy costs, and cold meals instead of hot meals to reduce heating costs. The government must intervene to solve this vital problem.
The government’s strategy also places a strong emphasis on individual responsibility for obesity, although it acknowledges that 64% of adults and 40% of children are overweight.
Dimbleby recommended taxes on sugar and salt, which would be used to fund healthy diets for people in poverty, but there was nothing so ambitious in the leaked version of the strategy, which should be published on Monday.
Right-wing think tanks celebrated the absence of a tax on sugar or salt.
Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said Dimbleby had been “taken over by activists” and had “made crazy policies”.
He urged the government: “Stop asking people for unnecessary criticism and come up with policies yourself! These are unforced errors and totally avoidable headaches.
Maxwell Marlow, head of research and development at the Adam Smith Institute, said: “The government is right to suspend its salt and sugar tax proposals. With 80% of people saying they are struggling to make ends meet, deliberately raising food prices and limiting the choices available to families will lead to more hunger and stress at this time of historic crisis.
“Also, as we’ve seen with other sugar taxes in the past, they often don’t have the intended effect, with consumers replacing them with something else or simply consuming more. Contraction [in which products decrease in size but the price remains the same] caused by additional levies will result in increased multi-pack sales and increased sugar consumption.
“Sugar consumption has steadily declined due to education and societal trends. The last thing the struggling British public needs are higher prices and negative incentives.