Hungry children didn’t drive this country into the ground – they deserve so much better than the meagre food parcels offered by our government

For the companies involved to attempt to write off the shoddy offerings we are seeing as isolated incidents is an insult to the thousands of recipients of similar packages – so here is what I propose

Jack Monroe
Tuesday 12 January 2021 22:10 GMT
The contents of a food parcel for a child that is designed to last a week
The contents of a food parcel for a child that is designed to last a week (Twitter)

The photos of the food parcels that have been circulating on social media in the last 48 hours are a shocking indictment of how our society views people in poverty.

With schools closed and the country in lockdown once again, the hot meal provision for children who qualify for free school meals is no longer available on site at schools. But the budget to provide an alternative is. Depending on the local authority, that budget is around £15 per week per child. 

Some local authorities have chosen to give parents supermarket vouchers, but a large number of authorities seem to have inexplicably plumped for half a loaf of bread, a couple of pieces of fruit, a single potato and a can of tuna instead.  

The Department for Education published its own guidelines for free school meals provisions in 2014. They recommended two kinds of carbs, with at least one being wholegrain; three different kinds of veg; three different kinds of fruit; a daily portion of meat or fish or beans or eggs; a daily portion of a dairy-based protein or alternative for children with different dietary needs; meat or poultry at least three days a week; and some savoury crackers.

For the companies involved to attempt to write off the shoddy offerings we are seeing as isolated incidents is an insult to the thousands of recipients of similar packages. And there are 600 in my inboxes alone, so an isolated incident this certainly isn’t, despite what their hasty PR strategy might want to gaslight us into believing.

I’ve heard from staff that work for the catering companies who say they go home in tears at the state of the whole situation. Head teachers and dinner ladies are dipping into their own pockets to top the boxes up because they are ashamed to look their most vulnerable parents in the eye and hand over these disgraceful pittances without supplementing them from their own pockets.

This behaviour isn’t new. Over the last decade, since the introduction of Conservative-led and Liberal Democrat-supported austerity measures, it increasingly falls to the “common people” to look after our own. Research shows that former food bank users are among the most generous to donate back when they no longer need the service. Midday assistants on furlough or poverty wages spending their own meagre incomes on the children in their care is reminiscent of the parable of the widow’s mite in the Bible – those who have least, tend to give most, because they have the empathy and battle scars to know how it feels to go without, to live in a world of “no you can’t have that”, darkness, and cold to the bones.

Those at the top end, those with the power to write the rules and make the changes, largely have no idea about what it’s like to raise a child in a damp poky flat because it’s all the housing benefit will afford, or the sinking feeling when the freezer breaks because there’s no insurance, because insurance is a luxury that those counting every penny cannot afford.

They have no inkling of what a 10p price rise on a pot of yoghurt can do to the last vestiges of spirit you were holding onto, or how you’ve learned to cry silently at night, face pressed into your pillow, so the children have no idea.

The CEO of one of these companies earns £17.2m a year. The MPs pooh-poohing the photographs on Twitter earn a minimum of £80,000. They get a £25 a day food allowance for meals in the House of Commons – which the single mums subsidise with the taxes on their groceries. If that doesn’t make you furious, and a little confused as to how on earth we got here in the first place, I’m not sure what will. You should be angry. And you should be directing that anger to campaigning, raising awareness, and making a change. Because it’s working. Schools are turning back to the voucher scheme as a result of the outcry and exposure on this issue, so keep raising your voices about it, please.

There seems to be a prevalent train of thought that if you’re in poverty you should be “grateful” for any help you get. And heartbreakingly, people are so broken by their circumstances and they value themselves so little that they are “grateful”. But it is conveniently forgotten that all of us are taxpayers, all of us are contributing to the coffers that are paying for these piteous parcels.

I have spent the last seven years giving talks to various organisations and political party conferences begging them to put dignity and active listening at the centre of everything they do. Ask people what their needs are and respond accordingly. People in difficult situations are no less deserving of a decent meal and adequate nutrition than anyone else.

The vouchers were a great idea. And despite what some people might be falsely claiming, they were blocked from being spent on age restricted products, like alcohol, cigarettes, or even a paring knife to peel potatoes with. But despite this restriction, mouthpieces on social media with their own austerity agendas claimed that they were widely abused. Rich, coming from people who exploit every tax and expenses loophole they can get their grubby snouts into.

It’s not the single mums who ran the country into the ground with their gambles on the economy and spending on vanity projects like the Garden Bridge. It’s not the children who ran amok with interest rates and fiscal irresponsibility. It’s once again those who have every possible home comfort deciding what’s best for those they deem to be less deserving than they are – and of course, because how else could a conscience square having taxpayer-funded fillet beef and champagne for one and dry pasta and a fifth of a tin of tuna for another?

My proposition is this: if school catering staff are being paid already to package up these paltry poverty picnics, why can’t they be paid to make the usual standard hot school lunches, portion them into plastic containers, and provide the original hot meal provision to be reheated at home? It’s what every other food outlet in the country has managed to implement without the vast wealth and resources that the country's largest catering suppliers have, and won’t be any more difficult to plan and implement and distribute than the current measly offering.  

Ideally, all schools would return to the voucher system, but failing that, surely this is the best possible solution for all involved.

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