Hunger games

Not content with fiercely resisting calls to provide our poorest children with free school meals twice this year, the conservative government is charging headlong into a Brexit that risks all our school children going hungry in Brexit Britain.

On Tuesday 17 November 2020, the Department for Education (DfE) released guidance on how schools should prepare for disruption to the food supply chain from 1 January 2021. The guidance is very light on detail, essentially stressing that schools will be held responsible for meeting nutritional standards and pupils’ special dietary needs in the event of any disruption to the food supply chain. Translation: it won’t be the government’s responsibility.

This is strikingly similar to a decision the DfE took on 1 October, which introduced a legal duty on schools to provide a remote education for pupils absent from school due to coronavirus. Following this directive, the DfE then decided to slash access to its own laptop scheme intended to assist with remote learning. Is it any wonder that nearly half of headteachers are reported as planning to leave the profession prematurely after the pandemic?

In any case, how on earth did we get to a situation where the British government is advising its schools how to deal with disruption to food chain supplies? Some schools started taking action long ago. In September 2019 one forward-thinking Dorset school confirmed, in a letter to parents, that they had begun stocking up on tinned food, and even purchased an additional freezer, to ensure they had the ability to store food long-term.

This latest Brexit-related DfE guidance certainly paints a very concerning picture. After all, if the DfE is advising schools to prepare for problems sourcing fresh food then they really need to be advising individuals to prepare, too.

But surely our food chains are robust enough to deal with short-term disruption –  right? Unfortunately not. Our food supply chains are incredibly efficient at delivering rapidly perishable goods from across the continent. It all relies on a smooth-running network of cold chain haulage companies that are able to cross European borders seamlessly.

This isn’t Project Fear anymore, either. The government is rapidly building lorry parks across the country. Why? Because of the fast-approaching grim reality facing our hauliers in post-Brexit Britain. Currently, of course, we are in the transition period and we still benefit from the single market and the customs union. At present, continental hauliers simply drive to Calais, drive onto a ferry and disembark at Dover or Folkestone with minimal checks and paperwork. It obviously works in reverse, too, for British hauliers. Whether you’re a British or French haulier in this scenario, doesn’t matter though. Sitting idle in a lorry park is an enormous waste of time and money which will no doubt lead to increased haulage costs and, ultimately, increased food prices.

It’s not difficult to see how beneficial this arrangement has been to the just-in-time food supply chain here in the UK.

What’s more, the UK is a net importer of food. This trade deficit is largely a consequence of the UK not growing enough to feed its populace (and, it has to be said, consumers as well as industry wasting too much). The latest Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) data on this trade deficit was published in October 2020. It shows that we import over three times the value of meat we export, and import nearly nine times the value of fruit and veg that we export. With figures like this, there is a real danger of great swathes of us struggling to find meat, vegetables and fruit if our food supply chain is disrupted. Of course, the answer to this is to work towards being more self-sufficient as a nation, but to simply implement this ambition ‘by decree’, as it were, overnight on 1 January 2021 is doomed to fail.

If, in spite of supply chain chaos, schools do actually manage to feed their pupils properly (and, let’s not be critical of schools – they often perform miracles under intense pressure) this will only be a victory won by giving our children frozen and tinned food. Did you see “Let’s take fresh food out of schools!” on the side of the Vote Leave bus in 2016? Me neither.

Avid pro-Brexit campaigners, many of whom now form our government, spent plenty of time convincing us of the considerable benefits awaiting us, following a vote to Brexit. What they didn’t explain is that the potential for disruption to our food supply chains was so great it would involve advising schools to stockpile food.