Education secretary Gavin Williamson is coming under pressure to improve 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 week’s lunches, but amounted to no more than a few cans, slices of cheese and vegetables.
Footballer and anti-poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford blasted the hampers as “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. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer branded the contents of the parcels “woefully inadequate”.
And teaching unions said that Mr Williamson should “get a move on” with the introduction of a promised national voucher scheme, which would allow parents to make their own purchases to make the £15-a-week support stretch 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 a quarter-onion, half a tomato and a stub of carrot offered to one family.
Manchester United striker 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 naïve?”
Rashford said that, as a child in a single-parent household, he had lied not only on free school lunch 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 during the first coronavirus lockdown last year, the Department for Education 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 prime minister Boris Johnson insisted they would remain open and less than 12 hours after some opened their doors following the Christmas break.
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 the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, Kevin Courtney, said: “It was a mark of shame against 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 was unable to give a date. Downing Street declined to discuss whether it 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.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer 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 Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper 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.”
The Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield 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 (RCPCH) have written to Mr Williamson calling for a review of the packages.Foodwriter Jack Monroe, who describes herself as a “former foodbank mum turned accidental activist”, 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.”
A spokesperson for Chartwells said: “We take our responsibility to provide children with access to nutritious food very seriously.
“We have worked hard to produce food hampers at incredibly short notice during these challenging times.
“Our hampers follow the DfE specifications and contain a variety of ingredients to support families in providing meals throughout the week. In the majority of instances, we have received positive feedback.”