Ladies and gentlemen, could I mention that I go back a long way on this whole effort to see if we can improve the way in which food is presented in various organisations. I must I’ve been so pleased to have this chance to join you today and even to investigate the kitchens here in this enormous establishment in Nottingham City Hospital and also eventually to be able to present the inaugural Soil Association “Food for Life Catering Mark” awards. I last visited this hospital back in 2004, as Patron of different cancer charities, to open its marvellous Breast Institute and the great thing about coming back today is that I know this Hospital is in the vanguard of the crucial battle in which everyone here today is engaged – and that is, of course, improving the quality of food in institutions and where that has been done so far we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the catering managers and those who have pushed this whole effort forward. Not an easy thing to do I know, because I suspect you come up against various barriers and obstacles and so on and so forth. It does take a lot of leadership and support from people at the top. As some of you here today know to your cost, I have been concerned about the state of our food production methods and our food culture for a great many years. I think some would call it meddling, I prefer to call it motivating, unless it’s medivating, I’m not sure. It is enormously encouraging that, thanks to a number of remarkable individuals – and I see some of you sitting here in front of me - things are I think beginning to change for the better. Across the country, in school kitchens – where they still exist– there are real strides forward being taken and I celebrated some of the most outstanding examples when I presented the first “Food for Life” Awards in London at the end of last year, which was a splendid occasion. But today we are here to celebrate those who have shown the determination to improve the food served in this country’s schools, hospitals, nurseries and sports clubs. That’s where Celtic Football Club have been so marvellous in leading the way in this area. So to all those here engaged in this crucial exercise I just want to offer my most warmest congratulations, most particularly to the Soil Association for the leadership it has taken in this whole area because it is absolutely vital.
Some people, believe it or not, still wonder why all this matters. As there seems to be quite a lot of people who should know better who still don’t believe the science of Climate Change but that’s another issue. Perhaps we can be very clear. There are few things more important than what we put into our bodies. I don’t really need to say that here in a hospital. We are, after all, what we eat. We know that we have growing health issues surrounding obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancers. I was talking about that yesterday to hospices which I visited in Leeds and also in Pontefract.
Talking to the experts, they would say there is a major link now in that area. So we know that there is a direct connection between these and the food we eat. We know that patients’ recovery in hospitals is aided when they eat good quality food. And I have heard from countless teachers that concentration levels and standards of behaviour improve when children are fed on good, wholesome food, rather than fast food. Foods with all kinds of additives.
There is one other vital link that we neglect at our peril and that, of course, is the connection between how and what we eat and climate change. As the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit said in its own analysis last year, when we think about food we cannot continue to talk about public health and climate change as two separate problems to be addressed by separate initiatives. How we grow food and then distribute it can make the whole difference to carbon emissions and it is the responsibility of each and every link in the food chain, from plough to plate to find ways to reduce its impact on the environment.
And so it is for all these reasons that we are here today. The Soil Association’s hugely successful “Food for Life” campaign has always been about good food that is better for our health and for the environment.
And Nottinghamshire, of course, is where it all began thanks to the remarkable dinner lady, Jeanette Orrey, who revolutionized the school meals at her primary school, St Peter’s, in East Bridgeford. I am so pleased that she is here today since I can only say she is owed the greatest possible debt of gratitude because she inspired the creation of Food for Life which has led the revolution in school food.
As I said earlier, I celebrated some of the great successes in school food last year, but making it all possible behind the scenes are some very committed school caterers who deserve the recognition that the Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark now provides.
I am hugely impressed by those who have succeeded in gaining this prestigious recognition. For instance, “Local Food Links” is a remarkable social enterprise that has achieved the Gold Catering Mark for serving delicious local and organic food and high-welfare meat to twenty-four schools in Dorset.
Although I gather from talking to you all this afternoon that there’s still a bit of a problem and discussion about what Local actually means and how we define that. So I think there’s still quite a lot of work to do to make sure we aren’t all in a muddle about this because it would help enormously to get a straightforward definition. Of course the Italians have got it all down to a fine art about how you have Local, Regional and Traditional food and they can demonstrate extremely well how we can really make progress.
I am fascinated to hear that the parents of these lucky children in Dorset are paying rather less than they would be paying for the average packed lunch, or for reheated frozen school meals. Those meals are trucked to other schools in Dorset from a factory that is actually here in Nottinghamshire.
“Shire Services” another organisation here, has seen the take-up of school meals rise since they launched a “Food for Life” menu with seasonal, local and organic food for 140 primary schools in Shropshire.
And I am so pleased to see that, at last, hospitals and other organisations are beginning to follow the example of the schools.
Back in 2004 I helped the Soil Association and Sustain launch a pilot project at St George’s hospital in Tooting to increase the amount of local and organic food being supplied to four hospitals. Then, in February last year, I spoke to a group of hospital Trust Chief Executives at a Soil Association event to share the learning from the outstanding success of the Royal Brompton Hospital in London which is sourcing its food from a local farmers’ hub, thus bringing benefit to the patients through better quality food, to the farmers through a reliable and local market and to the environment through lower food miles and less waste. As you might imagine, I was so pleased to learn that Sonia Mills, the Chief Executive of the North Bristol NHS Trust, who attended that event, was inspired to pilot the Catering Mark and I understand that North Bristol is now on the verge of receiving a “Food for Life” Catering Mark, along with the Royal Cornwall and Royal Brompton hospitals.
But I particularly want to congratulate our hosts today, Nottingham City Hospital, another alumni of that great gathering at the Royal Brompton Hospital, which will be the first hospital in the country to receive a “Food for Life” Catering Mark for their outstanding commitment to hospital food.
Ladies and gentlemen, all of us should be enormously encouraged by this progress, but I look forward to the day when the achievements we are celebrating today are the norm, not the exception. And I would go further. Why can we not look forward to a day when there are hubs of caterers who would buy local food from hubs of local farmers? This would massively reduce transport costs and food miles, while contributing greatly to local economies and to consumer, patient and pupil health. In other words, it would create a genuinely virtuous circle.
There is no doubt that the Soil Association’s “Food for Life” Catering Mark is the way forward and, given the level of interest in this initiative from policy-makers, many of whom I know are here today, and from all catering sectors – from nurseries to universities and sports stadia to restaurants – I am hopeful that the public will soon be able to seek the reassurance of the “Food for Life” endorsement wherever they eat, or their children eat, outside the home. And perhaps they might just start demanding it too – the greatest possible incentive.
I can only end by offering my warmest congratulations to the caterers here for having the courage to break with convention and to congratulate them for achieving awards or being on the verge of doing so. Perhaps it isn’t all as bad as they thought it might be and I hope others will now be encouraged and that the initiative will go from strength to strength.