Free School Meals: Government Failure in Tackling Social Issues20 Jan 2021
Food parcels provided to those eligible for free school meals have been branded as “woefully inadequate” by Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer, in the latest development on the issue of free school meals for children from low-income families.
On January 11th, upset parents took to Twitter to share with the public the meagre food hampers provided to them under the scheme which the government, under pressure from footballer Marcus Rashford, put in place to feed free school meal recipients during the pandemic. The food parcel, which should contain food equivalent to £15 per child, was found only to be worth £5.22 when price matched to Asda, raising questions on how funds are being spent. The government and the catering contractor that provided the parcel, Chartwells UK, have come under fire for this blunder.
Chartwells have been forced to apologise after a tweet by an upset mother shows a food package containing only two carrots, two potatoes and a tin of beans among other limited supplies meant to last a week. The initial tweet was met with an outpouring of support and expressions of anger and disbelief at the situation, with the tweet having been shared over 36,000 times on Twitter and featured by several news outlets. Others also shared their photos of inadequate food hampers, including one image depicting half a can of tuna emptied into a money bag and given to families, raising serious concerns over hygiene and quality practices of the catering companies contracted to provide this service. Several images also showed vegetables cut in halves or quarters, and food close to its sell-by date. Marcus Rashford took to Twitter to share pictures sent in by upset teachers and parents, and also used the platform to express his disgust at the situation, labelling it “unacceptable” and tweeting “We must do better than this”.
In light of this incident, Chartwells was called into a meeting with the Department for Education on January 12th, and in an attempt to repair the damage, announced they would be now issuing free breakfasts in their food parcels from January 25th. The situation also became a key point of the Prime Minister’s question time on January 13th, where he called the food parcels “an insult to the families that have received them”. Chartwells has also come under suspicion as to why it was awarded the contract due to its links to the Conservatives, as former chairman of Compass Group (of which Chartwells is a subsidiary), is a Conservative Party donor and previous business advisory group member under David Cameron.
This isn’t the first time Compass Group have been caught up in a scandal before. In 2006, a subsidiary of Compass Group was forced to pay a multi-million-pound settlement over a bribery scandal involving the United Nations. On January 12th, Chartwells issued a statement via Twitter to apologise for the situation, citing “short notice” as an excuse for the inadequate food provided.
The food parcels were given as an alternative to vouchers, an intended effect of the government support package that offered an extra £3.50 per pupil for free school meals funding for schools, but only if they provided food parcels instead of vouchers. In the tweets above, parents express that they could have bought far more food had they been given the voucher in the first place, prompting Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to announce in parliament that vouchers for free school meals valued at £15 would be available from Monday 18th, a welcome step in this ongoing issue.
A press release from Williamson and the Department for Education on January 18th outlined that the voucher scheme will be run through French company Edenred, and will provide families with an email code or a gift card that is redeemable at their supermarket of choice. The scheme is expected to run for four weeks, until February 12th.
The debate around providing free school meals was pushed into the headlines in the summer of 2020 when Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend the voucher system that feeds children from lower-income families during term-time. The pandemic’s effect on the economy has left families on the poverty line in an incredibly vulnerable position, which prompted Labour party support of Rashford’s campaign. The Prime Minister’s decision was eventually reversed and the programme extended for the summer, but this was shortly followed by MP’s voting down the motion to apply the scheme to school holidays until Easter 2021. Unsurprisingly, this decision was met with public outrage, forcing the government to U-turn once again. Two days after the Chartwells food hamper issue was raised, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was seen on This Morning being questioned by Piers Morgan regarding his decision to vote against providing free school meals in holidays during the pandemic. While public opinion coupled with Rashford’s high profile campaign has forced governmental support to be put in place for underprivileged children, the next few weeks will prove whether the government is really doing enough to truly tackle this serious social issue.