10/07/2013 10:58 BST | Updated 09/09/2013 06:12 BST

Under Labour, High Food Standards Will Apply in All Schools


When I talk to parents about school food, they often recollect grim memories of sloppy semolina, stodgy vegetables and meat as tough as old boots. Those days, in the main, are gone. Thanks to the heroic efforts of Jamie Oliver and the significant investment and reform under the last Labour governments, huge strides have been made to improve the quality and nutritional value of school food.

Reports over the weekend suggest that the publication of the government's School Food Plan is imminent. As someone who engages extensively with the many stakeholders in this sector - from the caterers to the campaigners - I know that this is extremely welcome news.

But as we look forward to the proposals which will come from the hard work done by Leon bosses John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, it's worth looking back at this Tory-led Government's record so far.

Labour put considerable thought and resources into improving the quality and take-up of school meals but this Government has taken us backwards.

Our focus was about recognising that health and educational outcomes for children are both crucial and inextricably linked, and that improving them would pay huge dividends in the long run.

We saw that we're in the middle of an obesity crisis, with some estimates suggesting the effects could cost the country some £60billion a year by 2050, but also that many children arrive at school hungry or suffering other effects of poor diets, having not eaten properly at home - a problem that's been growing in the last three years.

Labour introduced comprehensive nutritional standards for food in primary and secondary schools, subsidised the cost of that transformation through the School Lunch Grant so that prices didn't shoot up and schools were able to adapt to cooking from scratch, and established the School Food Trust to advise and support schools and caterers to drive up standards and take-up.

In addition, to ensure that more children from poorer backgrounds could benefit from that increased quality, we expanded eligibility for Free School Meals.

And because good diets shouldn't end at the school gate, we also set in train measures to ensure that every high school pupil was taught how to make an array of healthy and nutritious meals from scratch, using fresh ingredients.

All of this progress was deliberately undermined by Michael Gove.

Commitments to expand eligibility to Free School Meals were scrapped.

Cooking lessons were dropped from the curriculum, only to return - it seems - in this week's report, meaning hundreds of thousands of pupils have missed out on lessons which would have benefited them for the rest of their lives.

And most worryingly, school food standards now don't apply to the majority of schools after he exempted converter academies and free schools from following them.

As a result, a recent survey from the School Food Trust found that banned foods like crisps and fizzy drinks were creeping back into canteens and vending machines.

Parents deserve a guarantee that school food will be high quality, and for those children and young people for whom their free school meal may be the only proper meal they get, we owe it to them to ensure that that meal is a good one.

That's why Labour, along with Jamie Oliver and a number of other campaigners, has consistently called for our school food standards to apply to all schools once again.

So while I welcome the renewed focus that the School Food Plan process has brought to this important issue, and the extensive engagement that John and Henry have undertaken, if the Government continues to ignore those calls for all schools to meet our standards, then it may all have been for nothing.

I've no doubt that many of the Plan's recommendations will be welcome, but they won't benefit children if they're left on a Whitehall shelf to gather dust. Michael Gove has spent the last three years gambling with the health and wellbeing of our children; now we need firm action, not more drift and dither.