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Revealed: The £208m food box rip-off

Our exclusive analysis shows the government paid private contractors almost double the retail value for food parcels containing items that were barely edible.

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When Sandy Lucas first applied for the government food boxes in March, she had been trying in vain to book a supermarket delivery slot. The 66-year-old from near Wigan is living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and had been instructed by her doctor and a letter from the government to shield for 12 weeks to protect her from coronavirus.

Lucas lives alone, so she was worried about receiving enough supplies for three months of life indoors. “I always do online shopping because I can’t carry it,” she told me, “but because of people panic-buying, going out and buying everything and online, I struggled to order anything.”

Yet when she began receiving the free weekly box of food from the government, she became increasingly frustrated. Every week, she received a near-identical box with a significant proportion of “tinned and processed food” and very little fresh produce: no eggs, spreads or meat (aside from corned beef), and just ten tea bags for the week. “It got to the point where you just didn’t want to cook. There weren’t two things in the box you could put together and make a proper meal.”

On some occasions the contents appeared to have been guided more by spare inventory than nutritional need – “men’s toiletries”, “bars of soap the size of a 50 pence piece”, “children’s cereal, week after week after week”, “catering-size baked beans”, “loose, crushed and dirty toilet rolls” and food in cellophane without packaging (“so you couldn’t check the sell-by date”) were common. And every week, tin after tin after tin of Heinz tomato soup.

“Up to stopping the boxes on 1 August, I had 72 tins of tomato soup. The same brand, same flavour, every single week. Nothing in the boxes ever changed,” she recalls. “How soul-destroying is it to get 72 tins of tomato soup?”

Her loaf of bread always arrived defrosting and wet, and the vegetables were usually on the turn: “Carrots came rubbery, potatoes came sprouting; it was the same every single week.”

It took six weeks of lockdown before Sandy made it onto a priority supermarket delivery slot. As of today, she has still not left her house. She has seen her brother once since Christmas. She keeps the television on all day just to hear another human voice.

After nine weeks, as lockdown restrictions were loosening for others, Sandy opened that week's box and burst into tears. “How can the government expect us to stay on indefinite isolation on this food, while they release everyone else?” she asked herself. She wrote to her MP, then to the Health Secretary, the Home Secretary’s offices and even 10 Downing Street to ask: “Who was the nutritionist who said this was a week’s supply of nutritional food?” No one replied to her.

These boxes were not supplied by the government itself, but by private companies at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds to the taxpayer. It must now be asked whether, for an estimated £44 a box, the government could not have secured nutritious food for thousands of medically vulnerable people.

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In March, the government identified 1.5 million clinically vulnerable people who were asked to “shield”: stay indoors for at least 12 weeks to avoid contracting Covid-19 and risk overwhelming hospitals. Because these people could not go shopping for food, between 27 March and 31 July in England the government provided food packages to those who applied for them. 

The contract to provide this food went to two food wholesalers and distributors: Bidfood and Brakes. (The same contractors were used in the equivalent schemes in Scotland and Wales, while Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities provided the same service with councils and voluntary and community organisations, as well as private firms.)

In April, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said each parcel contained enough food for one person per week, and was intended “to provide basic supplies”. The government claimed to have compiled the contents of the boxes “in consultation with nutritionists and industry groups”, although it admitted that there would be “some limitations around what could be included”. The logistics of the scheme meant that the boxes were limited to “items that can be stored at room temperature”, which it characterised as “tinned goods and longer-lasting fruit such as apples or pears”.

[see also: Record numbers of people in Britain can’t afford food]

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While the food boxes were organised fast and reached medically vulnerable people without family and friends to help with supplies, their quality was soon called into question.

A mother called Lorraine Smith who was shielding in Dover, Kent, revealed in July that she was receiving “rotten fruit and veg” in her parcels “every week”, which was reported by a number of newspapers. (At the time, Defra said it “strictly monitored” the box’s contents, while a Brakes spokesperson admitted to Kent Live that “there may be an occasional issue with fresh products” because of the “current season changeover”.)

A young man shielding alone in Salisbury called Cham Titus was “shocked” by his box’s contents, telling the Salisbury Journal that “for your main meals there’s nothing there”.

In April, The Times reported that the boxes did not represent “the nutrient-dense diet a sick person needs” and quoted a nutritionist who declared them “short on omega-3, proteins and vitamins A and D in the forms our bodies can absorb”.

Kath Dalmeny, the chief executive of food and farming charity Sustain, described the boxes as a “mixed picture of food quality”, and the scheme as “logistically impressive” but “nutritionally questionable”.

This is despite the £208m contract awarded to Bidfood and Brakes. All costs, for both food products and logistics, have been redacted from the contracts displayed on the government's website, and they also redact the lists of goods the boxes would contain:

When asked by the New Statesman for the average price of each individual weekly box, and the other costs (for picking, packing and delivery, etc), both Defra and Brakes declined to provide a figure. Bidfood did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

A Freedom of Information request from the New Statesman for the costs of certain items in the food boxes was also refused by Defra. The department explained that disclosing the cost would “prejudice the commercial interests of the supplier's [sic] Brakes and Bidfood” and “negate Defra's ability to achieve value for money”.

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In an exclusive New Statesman analysis of the contents of five boxes received by five different individuals around the country, we calculate that the average cost of one of these boxes from Tesco, including delivery costs, would be £26. Because many of the smaller portions and quantities in the boxes are not available in supermarkets (eg. ten tea bags, ten coffee sachets, miniature soaps, and single loose toilet rolls) the actual cost of those items from Tesco would be lower still.

Example of a typical box:

Two kilos potatoes
One kilo carrots
Three 30 ounce tins of tomato soup
One 30 ounce tin of baked beans
One tin of chicken meatballs
One tin of mushy peas
One 500g bag of long grain rice
One jar of Bolognese sauce
One 500g packet of spaghetti
Two litres of long life milk
Five apples
Five oranges
One packet of biscuits
One box of Cheerios
Ten tea bags
Ten instant coffee sachets
One frozen loaf of sliced white bread
Two miniature hotel-style shower gels
One miniature soap, the size of a 50p piece
Two loose toilet rolls

However, we do know that 4,724,611 boxes were distributed in England alone under the scheme (a figure revealed via a Freedom of Information request). The £208m contract, divided by this figure, gives us an average cost of over £44 per box.

In March, the wholesalers' supply chains were working well, and – with their hospitality customers out of action – both Brakes and Bidfood had enough surplus to begin selling food directly to the public for the first time.

During this period supermarkets began selling their own boxes of weekly essentials. The price of Aldi’s box, which contained similar contents to the government's shielding boxes, dropped from £25 to £19.99 in July, with free delivery. A box from Morrisons contained far more fresh produce, including refrigerated meat and cheese, at a cost of £35 including delivery.

Although no party will disclose what money was spent on warehousing, picking, packing and delivery, Brakes and Bidfood are already big food wholesalers with substantial experience in logistics and supply. Both already have a significant national network – this is why they were given the contracts, after all.

The New Statesman understands that both companies delivered all the food boxes to shielding individuals, with no need to use third-party couriers, and during packing and delivery the food was kept at room temperature, which suggests low refrigeration costs.

Sandy Lucas also reveals that, by June, the delivery drivers were simply leaving her boxes on her doorstep without knocking. The New Statesman also witnessed this practice first-hand: a neighbour of your reporter had a box that was left outside for nearly a full day during the heatwave; she hadn’t been informed it was there.

How, then, did picking, packing and delivering a box of items that the wholesalers already had in their supply chains incur, at £44, a 69 per cent mark-up on the £26 retail price of a supermarket delivering a similar box?

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The government’s food parcel scheme was delivered at massive speed and scale. It provided a lifeline of basic provisions to those suddenly trapped inside, unable to find a delivery slot at an online supermarket, and with no one to shop for them. But there are alternative ways to deliver better quality food in a crisis.

The “triage” system used locally in Greenwich for non-shielding vulnerable residents, for example, has been praised by food charities. Up and running within two weeks, this allowed those who could afford it to pay for their boxes, and also provided nutritious food that was appropriate for those with limited capacity to prepare meals (for example, ingredients that could be cooked using a kettle).

[see also: The busiest ever month for UK foodbanks exposes a fatal flaw in our pandemic response]

A decade of austerity has led to councils cutting their meals on wheels services which, had they still been running, could have provided more nutritious meals during lockdown.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” says Simon Shaw, a researcher from Sustain who studied such services in different countries last year. In France, Italy and South Korea, he found evidence of “ambitious, vibrant, enterprising meals services that provided tasty nutritious food alongside regular welfare checks and other support and advice”. Most importantly, these services “have flexibility built in, so in the event of an emergency – like extreme weather or more recently a pandemic – they can scale up to meet extra demand. This also happened in the UK where remaining meals on wheels services were able to respond quickly during the lockdown.”

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The New Statesman understands that the price assessment Defra carried out before the contracts were awarded was made in the context of shocks to the food supply system due to stockpiling at the time, and lack of capacity among supermarkets to deliver so much at such short notice. Throughout the food box programme, recipients were encouraged to opt out if they no longer required the supplies, and the department is satisfied that the programme achieved its objectives within budget.

But the questions remain: Why did these boxes of basic wholesale foodstuffs cost so much more than at a supermarket?

As per the wording of Defra’s contracts with Bidfood and Brakes, does £44 a box really represent “good value for money in all the prevailing circumstances having regard to the current Covid-19 crisis”?

As the prospect of a second nationwide lockdown looms, people who have been shielding remain unsure whether they will be officially instructed to stay at home permanently. For Sandy Lucas, subsisting on the box scheme is one of the worst aspects of another lockdown. After a career in the Prison Service and the Manchester Market Police, Lucas says she would be better fed behind bars; prisoners, she says, “would riot” if given the food she received. “I’ve seen soup kitchens in Manchester in the middle of the night give better food out.”

Rather than “throwing these boxes at our front doors again”, she would prefer help from the government with her rocketing utility bills, which are much higher than previous years because of all the time spent indoors.

“We’ve had to stay in, our bills have gone through the roof, and they’ve given us nothing but those boxes,” she says. “They’ve locked us up, pushed us away, treated us like we don’t exist. We feel like a forgotten army – but this army might have a sting in its tail next election.”

A spokesperson for Defra said: “The contract with Brakes and Bidfood delivered more than 4.8 million food parcels as part of an unprecedented support package to help our most clinically vulnerable people shield from coronavirus.

“Thorough market analysis and engagement was undertaken before awarding the contract, and the cost of the food boxes was independently assessed and benchmarked to ensure the best use of taxpayer money.”

A spokesperson for Brakes had “nothing to add” to Defra’s response.

Bidfood did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

[see also: Poverty by algorithm: The Universal Credit design flaw that leaves people penniless]

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.