Social Media Scandal
On 12th January, Twitter user Roadside Mum shared a photo with her Twitter followers. The photo showed a loaf of bread, a tin of baked beans, a few cheese slices wrapped in cling film, a small amount of fruit and veg, a handful of pasta, 2 fruit loaf bars and 3 yoghurt tubes (brand name: frubes). This was the food that had been provided in lieu of free school meals during lockdown, and was supposed to feed her child for a week.
The photo quickly went viral, with other parents sharing the meagre offerings that they had received. Some families even received food parcels with half a tomato or pepper, an inch or two of carrot, food such as tuna and cheese packaged in money bags and expired bagels. Sarah, a mother who received a miserly food parcel containing expired bagels and no fresh food apart from two potatoes, made a valid point: “…they’re getting government funding to do this. Where does the money go if this is what they’re giving people?” Where indeed?
These disgraceful food parcels generated much discussion about free school meal (FSM) provision in the UK during the COVID-19 Pandemic. During the first two lockdowns, parents with children receiving FSM had been issued with vouchers to the value of £15 per week to redeem for food in the supermarket. Predictably there was then much right-wing outrage, including from Conservative MPs, about parents spending the food vouchers on alcohol, cigarettes, crack dens and brothels (yes, really.) After this right-wing storytelling, the government decided to switch to mostly providing food parcels. Never mind that the school meals vouchers had only ever been redeemable for food items.
These school meal food parcels were largely outsourced to catering companies, some of whom apparently saw a way to make a bit of easy cash. Let them eat beans. Like playground bullies stealing lunch money, corporations took food straight from the mouths of hungry children with an approving nod from the bigger bullies in government.
The company that provided Roadside Mum’s food parcel, or ‘food hamper’ as they prefer to laughably describe it, was Chartwells, a subsidiary of (FTSE 100 Company) Compass Group. As reported in The Guardian newspaper, since 2016, Compass and its subsidiary have won contracts worth almost £350 million for school catering, typically including free school meal provision. They are the largest school meals provider in the UK. Questions must be asked about how they were awarded these contracts and where all this money has gone. Compass Group has links to the Conservative Party; and its recently retired chairman, Paul Walsh, was a donor to the party and a member of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s business advisory group.
Through their incarnation as Chartwells Independent, Compass also provide catering to private schools. Compare and contrast the fare given to privileged private school kids over those getting local authority free school meals; the discrepancy is vast. It shows complete contempt for working class kids. Working class kids can have some out of date bagels. Private school kids get lavish buffets, gingerbread villages, luxurious patisserie selections and special ‘pancake day’ spreads.
Compass Group has been involved in other scandals involving school meals. In the USA, it was found to have overcharged New York schools for school meals over a period of 7 years, receiving discounts from vendors that it did not pass on to the schools as required by law. Compass Group had to pay an $18 million settlement in this particular case of profiteering from hungry children. In 2013, Compass was found to have supplied horse meat to several schools in Ireland and the North of Ireland. Shareholders in Compass Group have raised concerns over the FSM food parcel scandal, no doubt wishing to protect their investments from the scandal. Other catering companies have also provided FSM parcels (ranging from adequate to appalling) during lockdown, they have largely avoided being named in this scandal.
Defences and Government Guidance
Chartwells issued a brief statement about Roadside Mum’s food parcel, stating that it had charged the local authority £10.50 for it rather than £15, or £30. They said that they were sorry that the quantity had fallen short “in this instance”, and blamed the substandard quality of its food parcels on the short notice of the government move from vouchers to food parcels.
The catering companies could argue in their defence that the contents of their food parcels are quite similar to the UK government guidance on free school meals parcels, with the government list having only an additional tin of sweetcorn, a litre of milk, and pack of ham or tin of tuna. They could argue that they were just following government guidelines. This would be an inadequate defence as they did not have to sign up to provide such meagre, punishing meals. They could have refused, they could have insisted on providing sufficient nutritious food and they did not. Profiting from hungry children was acceptable to them until they were caught.
It is even less of a defence when we consider the involvement of Stephen Forster. Stephen Forster was involved, as Chair of the school catering professional body LACA, in drawing up the government FSM food parcel guidelines. Forster is also a director at Chartwells. LACA lobbies the government on behalf of school catering firms, is involved in drawing up government guidance on food parcels, then its national Chair is seemingly able to profit from this miserly government guidance under a different role.
Reprising his role of food poverty campaigner, taken on during the first COVID lockdown, the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford was quick to speak out on this outrage. He labelled the food parcels ‘unacceptable’ and set up discussions with the Prime Minister.
Food writer, chef and anti-poverty activist Jack Monroe also campaigned hard on the issue, receiving hundreds of pictures of substandard food parcels from parents and using their public profile to speak up against this shamefully meagre food provision in TV and newspaper interviews. Jack told the BBC that “free school meals had been replaced with a “poverty picnic”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer tweeted that the food parcels were “woefully inadequate” and said that the situation “needs sorting immediately”, while Marcus Rashford was discussing the issue with the Prime Minister and making plans with the supermarket Aldi to provide 10 million meals to families in need in 2021. The Labour Party could have been at the heart of this campaign, calling strongly for decent food for all school kids and demanding concessions from the government. Instead it has again been left to footballers, writers, and ordinary people to hold the government and catering contractors to account. I hope that Starmer’s Labour Party start holding the government to account rather than weakly saying “this needs sorting out”. I’m glad they are at least critical of the government over this scandal.
Starmer did raise the similarities between the government guidance on FSM parcels and the inadequate food parcels in parliament but was mocked for his ineffectiveness, with PM Johnson jeering: “I’m grateful to Marcus Rashford, who highlighted the issue and is doing quite an effective job by comparison to [Sir Keir] in holding the Government to account on these issues.”
Johnson and his government are, of course, ultimately to blame for this scandalous failure to support hungry kids. Government ministers decried the food parcels, as if it was not their government that had implemented the FSM food parcels policy or issued abstemious government guidance on the issue. It is this Tory government that has failed its nation’s children during the COVID pandemic; the food parcels scandal being just one instance of failure and neglect. It is a shame that they have been left to get away with it almost unimpeded for so long.
The campaign against these stingy and humiliating food parcels, started on social media by parents and championed by Marcus Rashford and Jack Monroe, lead to a rapid U-turn by the Tory government and a commitment by Chartwells to drastically improve its practices. Other catering companies have kept their heads down. The government has agreed to reinstate its food voucher scheme. From 18th January 2021, parents will again be able to apply for £15 vouchers instead of receiving food parcels. Chartwells have been in discussion with the parent who first raised her concerns on Twitter and have told her that they will make substantial changes to their practice including not billing local authorities for the inadequate food parcels provided, adding more lunch items and also including breakfast items in their parcels and soliciting input from parents and nutritionists on what goes in their parcels. This shows what ordinary people can achieve when they fight. Imagine if they had the backing of a political party consistently fighting alongside them.
The Next School Meals Battle
Fresh from its U-turn on substandard FSM parcels and vouchers, the Tory government has again announced that free school meals will not be provided during the upcoming half-term holidays. They did this with previous lockdown school holidays and were forced to U-turn by (de facto opposition leader) Rashford’s campaigning. I cannot understand why they would do this straight after their recent defeat on the issue of feeding hungry children. It’s as though they enjoy the ‘nasty party’ image. Perhaps they think they can keep beating Starmer with the ‘Marcus Rashford is the real opposition’ stick by doing this. Perhaps they just have complete disdain for working class children and cannot fathom feeding them when they don’t ‘have to’. It appears to almost physically hurt them to feed hungry kids.
This food parcels scandal has highlighted several lessons: the ease with which companies that have Tory connections get essential services contracts (see also COVID PPE contracts); that despite their rhetoric, these companies gladly have their snouts in the trough of public money; and the lack of concern of both government and these companies for the health and wellbeing of our school children.
It has also highlighted that it is possible to force them into better positions through vocal and persistent campaigning. Compass Group/Chartwells do not want to upset their shareholders while the government perhaps don’t want to openly be seen to endorse profiting from child hunger. At any rate, the scrutiny and negative publicity has been effective at forcing a change of policy from both.
The scandal has also highlighted the contempt that the government and its friendly catering contractors have for working class children. Working class children are seen to deserve only the bare minimum to keep them alive, forget about thriving or good nutrition or variety in diet. Heaven forbid they enjoy a free meal! If they could get away with it, the Tories would probably provide them with gruel. During previous FSM scandals, social media was full of well-off people smugly posting money-saving recipes and budgeting advice for poor people. This attitude towards the ‘undeserving poor’ is fairly prevalent in the UK.
Successive UK governments and their media helpers have consistently portrayed people living in poverty as feckless layabouts who have brought misfortune on themselves. Parents of children who receive FSM have been smeared as bad at budgeting and selfish, spending money on cigarettes and alcohol rather than their kids. The idea of government supporting people in need has been presented as encouraging dependency and applying for state support has been made torturously difficult, humiliating, and punitive.
Even if this myth of the feckless scrounger parent was true and thousands of parents were ‘playing the system’, punishing hungry children would still be completely and utterly inhuman. Every child deserves to have enough varied, good quality, and nutritious food to eat. No child should be humiliated with paltry starvation rations like stale bread and half a tomato because their parents are poor. As a society we must do better than this. We should be angry at the disdain the Tories have for working class kids and use that anger to fight for change. Trust parents to feed their children. Give them money if they are lacking it, not loveless scraps of charity. Our children are worth much more than a miserly tin of beans.
2 https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/free-school-meal-measly-included-23305830 for one disgraceful example and https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/12/what-am-i-supposed-to-make-with-this-uk-parents-on-schools-meagre-food-parcels for more
3 Quoted in https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/12/what-am-i-supposed-to-make-with-this-uk-parents-on-schools-meagre-food-parcels
18 Quoted in https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/free-school-meals-boris-johnson-food-parcels-government-guidelines-pmqs-video-827833