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12 January 2021

Free school meal scandal: Why the government is failing to feed people during the pandemic

A private caterer has admitted “falling short” as photos circulate on social media of woeful meal provision for poorer pupils.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Two potatoes, one tin of baked beans, eight single cheese slices, two carrots, three apples, two bananas, one small bag of penne, one tomato, three Frubes, two Soreens and a loaf of sliced bread.

This meagre spread was deemed enough to feed one schoolchild for ten days, according to a Twitter user called @RoadsideMum, who tweeted a photo of the food laid out on 12 January:

She added up the cost of the goods and worked out that she could have bought them for £5.22 from Asda. But instead, her child received this “hamper” from a private catering company called Chartwells – one of many firms contracted to supply free school meals to eligible pupils at home while their schools are closed during lockdown. The company has since said this is five rather than ten days’ worth of food.

Not all food packages being sent to children on free school meals are poor value or nutritionally inadequate. Schools, academy trusts and some local authorities choose their own school meal suppliers, and some catering services are in-house – so the quality is variable and it is difficult to quantify how many have fallen below acceptable standards.

Yet families receiving disappointing packages – many photos of which are circulating over social media – could be feeding their children more and better if they had access to the £15 per school week supermarket vouchers they have received over some school holidays during the pandemic so far.

[Hear more from Anoosh on The New Statesman Podcast]

With the latest school closures, however, feeding children outside of school has shifted away from the voucher scheme towards food parcels. “The voucher scheme will only be available to parents when it is not possible to provide food parcels,” states the school catering professional body LACA, which has been involved alongside the Department for Education and Public Health England in drawing up guidance for food parcels.

Families will be eligible for such vouchers while schools are closed “shortly”, but the Department for Education has not said when. Stephen Forster, who laid out the above guidance, is the national chair of LACA – which lobbies the government – as well as a director at Chartwells: the contractor being accused of profiteering from the food boxes.

Although it is difficult to tell how much profit all outsourced school caterers are making from the lockdown, Chartwells said that the prices of its hampers were £23.40 per fortnight when the offending parcel was sent out, according to what the company told the Daily Mirror . If we assume picking, packing and delivery costs are the same as at Asda (£3 charge if the order is worth less than £40), then Chartwells made a £15.18 profit on that particular box. The company has since claimed the box was worth £10.50 (still over double its value in Asda).

We also know in general that Chartwells reaps good business from schools – it supplies food to over 3,000 education establishments, with contracts totalling more than £9m awarded in 2020 alone.

A spokesperson for Chartwells has stated that the image going viral on Twitter “falls short of our hamper specification” and that the company is “keen to investigate with the relevant school so we can address any operational issues”. It has also provided a list of what the boxes should contain to the Daily Mirror.

The Department for Education is also looking into the matter. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said content of the food parcels is “completely unacceptable” and Labour leader Keir Starmer has called them “woeful”.

This debacle is just the latest in a pattern of government failures to feed hungry people during the pandemic. Similar schemes have featured poor provision.

As the New Statesman reported in June 2020, a supplier called Edenred – awarded a £234m school meal voucher contract without a tendering process by the Department for Education – botched the scheme, leaving children stuck at home waiting for food and some teachers purchasing food themselves for desperate families. (The system eventually improved.) In December, the National Audit Office found it had received contracts worth up to £425m without tender, despite “limited evidence” of its capacity to deliver.

As revealed in October by the New Statesman, £208m was awarded to two food distributors called Bidfood and Brakes to provide weekly food parcels to shielders during the original lockdown: boxes cost over double their retail value, according to our calculations.

Indeed, the New Statesman can now reveal the official list of goods outlined for the shielding boxes, which the government, Bidfood and Brakes have all so far hidden from public view. It was provided by the government to the Good Law Project in response to their legal letter asking questions about the scheme.

Beyond anecdotal evidence, these lists now show that the retail value of the shielding boxes (if you add up how much these items would cost if bought from a major supermarket) are far lower than the contracts awarded to Bidfood and Brakes would reflect.

The government is being threatened with legal action by the Good Law Project over this scheme – which may have boosted private “profit margins at the expense of the health of vulnerable groups” – and the National Audit Office is due to publish its investigation into the government’s protection and support of shielders during lockdown later this month. Nevertheless, directors at Bidfood and Brakes were awarded MBEs in the New Year Honours list.

Charges of opaque outsourcing decisions and private companies profiteering from a crisis have dogged the government’s coronavirus response throughout. As parents struggle to feed their children through the toughest winter in living memory, such questions are only going to get louder.