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Food parcels sent to schoolchildren are ‘completely unacceptable’, government admits

Pictures of hampers sparked outrage from anti-poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford

Andrew Woodcock,Tom Batchelor
Tuesday 12 January 2021 20:36 GMT
Coronavirus in numbers

Gavin Williamson is coming under pressure to improve the standards of free school meal provision during lockdown after the government accepted that food parcels offered to some disadvantaged families were “completely unacceptable”.

There was outrage after parents published pictures on social media of the packages, which were supposedly worth £30 and supposed to provide two weeks’ lunches, but amounted to no more than a few cans, slices of cheese and vegetables.

Footballer and anti-poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford said the hampers were “not good enough” and issued a challenge to ministers to do better for children unable to get their usual free school meals because of lockdown. Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, branded the contents of the parcels “woefully inadequate”.

And teaching unions said that Mr Williamson, the education secretary, should “get a move on” with the introduction of a promised national voucher scheme, which would allow parents to make their own purchases, stretch the £15-a-week support as far as possible and buy food they know their children will want to eat.

Education minister Vicky Ford told executives at food box supply firm Chartwells, owned by Compass Group, that families should not be offered packages of the standard seen in pictures which went viral after being posted late on Monday.

One showed a £30 hamper, supposed to supply 10 meals, which was made up of a loaf of sliced bread, a can of beans, some pre-sliced cheese, two bananas, two carrots, three apples, two potatoes, a tomato, two cake bars, three yoghurt drinks and a small bag of pasta.

The mother who was offered it, who used the name Roadside Mum, said the contents would have cost her £5.22 at her local supermarket.

“If it was me shopping, I could get loads of vegetables for £30,” she said. “Where’s the rest of the money gone?”

An email from the school said that if children had special dietary requirements, parents should simply remove the items they could not eat from the box.

Other pictures showing hampers from different companies included images of an onion quarter, half a tomato and a stub of carrot offered to one family.

Manchester United striker Mr Rashford spoke to the company and said it appeared there had been “very little communication” with suppliers that a national lockdown was coming on 5 January.

“We must do better,” he said. “Children shouldn’t be going hungry on the basis that we aren’t communicating or being transparent with plans. That is unacceptable.

“We have so many independent businesses who have struggled their way through 2020 – why can’t we mobilise them to support the distribution of food packages? Or am I being naive?”

Rashford said that, as a child in a single-parent household, he had relied not only on free school lunches but also breakfast club and after-school clubs, and questioned whether one meal five days a week was enough for the most vulnerable children.

After widespread criticism of a national voucher scheme run by Edenred last year, the Department for Education (DfE) allowed schools to use central funds to set up local voucher plans with nearby shops or to arrange for food parcels, using their own caterers or food supply companies.

These two options were made available again when schools in England were shut to all but vulnerable youngsters and the children of key workers at the start of January. But schools were given little time to organise supplies, as the shutdown was announced just a day after Boris Johnson insisted institutions would remain open.

The head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, said Mr Wiliamson needed to act quickly.

“The government needs to get a move on with reopening the national free school meal voucher scheme,” said Mr Barton. “Schools have been left having to piece together provision by arranging for food parcels and local vouchers.

“As we have seen from these images online of inadequate food parcels, this can go wrong, and we need the availability of a universal system. It is absolutely vital that these children get a good meal. We can hardly expect remote learning to work well if they are hungry.”

And Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It was a mark of shame against the government that so many mistakes were made the first time around with the delivery of free school meals during a lockdown period.

“No child should wake up too hungry to learn, or anxious about where their next meal is coming from. The government must act urgently to ensure no child is left behind.”

The DfE said that the national voucher scheme would resume “shortly”, but it was unable to give a date. Downing Street declined to discuss whether the scheme had been delayed because of the abrupt announcement of lockdown measures last week.

Ms Ford said she would “urgently” look into the matter but defended the use of parcels instead of vouchers for families in need.

She said: “One of the reasons why some schools have used food parcels rather than vouchers is that it helps keep them in touch with families.

“Very sadly during the pandemic there has been an increase in risk to some children.”

But Sir Keir said: “The images appearing online of woefully inadequate free school meal parcels are a disgrace.

“Where is the money going? This needs sorting immediately so families don’t go hungry through lockdown.”

And Daisy Cooper, Liberal Democrat deputy leader, wrote to Mr Williamson to demand urgent action to replace the “abysmal” parcels with vouchers.

“The amount of food parents have received to feed their children is not anything like enough to provide an adequate, nutritious lunch every day,” said Ms Cooper. “Nor do they appear to represent value for money, given what the parcels should theoretically be worth.”

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said she is concerned that preference appears to be being given to parcels “rather than vouchers which would let families make choices about their food”.

Ms Longfield added that her department was following up concerns with the DfE about “the standard, adequacy and nutritional value of food boxes”.

Doctors at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have written to Mr Williamson calling for a review of the packages. Food writer Jack Monroe described the parcels as “offensively meagre scraps”.

She said: “There seems to be a prevalent train of thought that if you’re in poverty you should be ‘grateful’ for anything you get.

“People in difficult situations are people, no less ‘deserving’ of a good meal than anyone else.”

Chartwells apologised over the food parcels, but insisted that one of the packages pictured was only intended to provide five days’ meals.

A spokesperson for the company said: “We have had time to investigate the picture circulated on Twitter. For clarity this shows five days of free school lunches (not 10 days) and the charge for food, packing and distribution was actually £10.50 and not £30 as suggested.

“However, in our efforts to provide thousands of food parcels a week at extremely short notice we are very sorry the quantity has fallen short in this instance.”

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