Why food parcels are the wrong way to feed hungry children

There is no case for food parcels instead of cash as an effective means of lifting people out of poverty.

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Who’s to blame for the meagre state of England’s food parcels? Pictures of inadequate parcels containing bruised bananas, half-portions of peppers wrapped in cling film and tiny portions of ingredients in money bags are being widely shared on social media and written up in the press. The academy chain the Harris Federation has announced that it will no longer be delivering food parcels from Chartwells, one of the companies caught up in the controversy, while the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said he was "absolutely digusted" by the standards of some of the food parcels.

The New Statesman's Britain editor, Anoosh Chakelian, has been covering the scandal of inadequate provision for some time, and her latest scoop reveals the large gap between the cost of the food itself and the sums spent on the parcel schemes, as well as providing an essential potted history of how we got here. 

The inevitable consequence of the government buying food directly is that you end up with less food as a result, just as if you get a takeaway – or, in happier times, go to a restaurant – you get less for your money than if you bought the ingredients for yourself: because the cloth has to be cut so many extra ways. 

The difference, of course, is that there is an additional benefit to having someone else prepare a cooked meal for you, whether in quality or time. But what's the additional benefit of food parcels that wouldn't be done better by increasing child benefit by £10.20 a week per child at the touch of a button? (Or, if the prospect of families earning £49,999 getting an extra £40 a month offends you, doing the same thing via Universal Credit?) Either would be swifter than the belated return of free school meal vouchers.

The reality is every study shows that, whether in developing countries or advanced economies, giving people in poverty cash is the simplest and most efficient way of lifting them out of poverty. 

In the small number of cases where that is not the case, food parcels of uncooked food and ingredients are still a near-useless policy intervention, because the minority of families who, for whatever reason, would not spend the money on feeding themselves and their children aren't able to get the most out of a food parcel delivered from on high either. 

So why don't we just increase child benefit or universal credit? The answer is twofold. The first is that since April, Rishi Sunak has been trying to undo the open-ended commitments he made at the beginning of the crisis and to avoid spending commitments he fears he will be unable to reverse after the crisis is over. 

But the second, and more insidious one, is that tackling the consequences of the pandemic via cash transfers goes against the default assumption in so much policymaking: that poverty is the result of a moral failure on the part of the poor.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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