However, it is not the result of a pandemic, nor of a new strain of COVID-19, but the result of our Government
By MK Hubbard
Media headlines plastered with ever-escalating statistics announce the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic upon our National Health Service. Since January 2020, the number of cases, patients in hospital, and people who have lost their lives has risen exponentially 1 . The effects of COVID-19 have been unimaginable, with the media understandably focusing upon the accumulating loss of lives: a figure which has surpassed 104,000 in the UK alone2. Focusing on the death rates in ascertaining the impact of the pandemic on UK public health is, of course, understandable. However, this focus has sidelined other widespread issues, including children’s access to adequate nutrition through the indispensable free school meals program.
The direct health risks of COVID-19 to under-18s are relatively small3, but countless young people are still losing the future they deserve due to the wide-reaching socioeconomic effects of this virus. These effects transcend the devastating respiratory issues and fatalities of the virus with which we have become so familiar, into the realm of less monitored health effects. A poignant example affecting young people living in economic poverty is the availability of free school meals throughout the pandemic.
As of January 2020, ~1.4m children, or 17.3% of the UK school population, qualify for free school meals: the highest proportion in over a decade4. A child qualifies for this scheme if their guardian receives any one of a list of income support measures, combined with their annual household income a year after taxes remaining below £74005. Crucially, analysis by the Food Foundation UK shows that the numbers of children qualifying are not decreasing. Their estimates show that a further ~900,000 children may have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic, due to the virus’s impact upon employment preventing many families from earning a living wage6. Thus, it is becoming increasingly important for the government to prioritise the free school meal program as demand rapidly increases. However, this, disappointingly, is not the case.
Good intentions, or profiteering?
In the Government guidance issued on the 8th of January 2021, schools were expected to continue supporting children eligible for benefits-related free school meals whilst schools were shut during the new national lockdown7. Last year during lockdown, children eligible received supermarket vouchers of £15 (for five days worth of lunches)8. However, this year, schools were ‘strongly encouraged…to adopt a parcel first approach’, and it was only once a school had ‘confirmed with the school catering team…that they cannot provide food parcels’ that other options, such as vouchers for supermarkets, could be considered9. There were significant benefits identified in the issued guidance to angling towards food parcels over food vouchers, as they closely replicated the school meal system in the term time, ensuring that a healthy, nutritious, and varied range of food is being provided in line with school food standards. The Government also identified that many families in more remote locations would have to travel a considerable distance to access the supermarkets used in the food vouchers scheme, and in the interests of avoiding unnecessary travel, food parcels were reasoned to be the best approach.
This approach, as a reasoned argument, appears beneficial and well reflective of the approach of free school meals during normal term time. However, it was the implementation of this approach to millions of vulnerable children which highlighted its key flaws.
Major backlash on social media was sparked when images circulated of the reality of these pitiful food parcels. Who was held accountable for this failure? Chartwells: the country’s largest school catering provider10. The apparently promising food parcels provided included partial carrot stubs, halved tomatoes, and diced onions. And the sparse icing on the nonexistent piece of cake? The packaging, with these miniscule servings squeezed into miniature plastic money bags11. These parcels were going out to the country’s most vulnerable children, who did not receive full portions of even the most essential items: nowhere near enough to sustain nutrition for a child’s lunches for 5 days. Aside from this integral nutritional perspective, the portion sizes and packaging presentation was degrading and simply insulting: highlighting the lack of care toward these vulnerable children. Emphasising this issue even further was the lack of provision for children with allergies at many of the schools Chartwells supplied to12. Children who were vegetarian, had allergies, or who followed specific diets for religious reasons, in some cases, would just not be able to eat. There did not appear to be any thought behind the packages, no good will to help struggling families, but a widespread feeling of lack of care and attention.
Aside from these reasons, even from a purely economical standing, the totaled cost of these individual parcels did not match the money the government stated they provided for the scheme. The money available for schools to claim back in vouchers for each eligible child is ~£15 per week. However, for families receiving the food parcels, £11.50 was available for each child13. Countless families evidenced the contents of their food parcels and totaled up the cost to be ~£5 per child if bought from the local supermarket14. Coupled with the fact that ~2000 schools use this same provider, a wholesaler’s discount and distribution en masse would have made these food parcels even cheaper15.
In response, Chartwells stated that the parcel provided cost ~£10.50 for food, packing and distribution16. However, it is simply unclear how the ‘country’s largest school caterer’ would be unable to access wholesale prices and ended up purchasing food at a similar, if not higher, cost to chain supermarkets. The cost for the distribution of these parcels should also have been no higher than it typically costs the company to deliver food to schools. Each parcel was not individually distributed, but instead each family eligible were given slots to come into the school to pick the parcel up. With regards to the most popular image circulating social media, showing one child who received ~£5 worth of food for 10 days worth of meals, Chartwells simply denied the rumours. Their statement addressed the image, and reissued the line that the parcel actually cost ~£10.50, and was only intended for 5 days of school lunches. This initially appeared to calm the issue, as many thought that the family in question must have made a mistake. However, the release of a previous email to the family stated that the parcel was indeed designed to last 10 days. Chartwells firm, owned by the multinational contract food service ‘Compass’ group, reissued an apology for these ‘parcels that did not meet the firm’s high standards’, and they committed themselves to refunding the cost.
The Compass group made an operating profit of ~£561 million from January to September of 2020, however this was still a fall of ~70% from the ~£1.8 billion profit made in the previous year17. Questioning the outsourcing of the free school meals program to a private company for profit may be an issue in itself, and a heavily loaded political inquiry regarding the privatisation versus nationalisation of key government enterprises. However, it is undeniably problematic that the free school meals program, designed to help the UKs most vulnerable children living in poverty, is outsourced to a multinational private company operating on such a massive profit turnover.
A structural problem
Whilst it is easy to blame the individual companies providing such substandard nutrition to the country’s most vulnerable children, there is a larger governmental issue behind it. Tulip Siddiq, the shadow children’s minister, called upon the government ‘to come clean about who was involved in drawing up the guidance on food parcels’18. When addressing the MPs in the Commons Liaison Committee, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the free school meals pictured online do not reflect government guidance, and that it was a ‘scandal and a disgrace that some companies are trying to get away with the provision they’re offering’19. Johnson also added that it was the decision of the schools to have vouchers or food parcels. There may have been a decision as Johnson argues, however, due to the nature of the government guidance discussed above, was there really anything more than a highly pressured and influenced decision?
The Government’s attempt to evade all responsibility here are simply outrageous. The organisation which the government consults with when developing policies for school food, LACA, have released their approved guidance online with what the food parcels should contain20. Approved and developed alongside the government, as pointed out by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, the main images circulating social media of these dismal food parcels are only missing a few items off the list21. Whilst these few items are obviously integral to a child receiving the nutrition, satisfaction, and happiness they need, the key point here is that the requirements issued by the government were largely met. The standards issued by the government in providing food to vulnerable children during the pandemic covered the bare minimum: the simple essentials. The package appears more like a survival kit than any meaningful supplement to daily life. There was indeed fault with the individual companies who exhibited so little care in protecting the UKs most vulnerable children, and there is inarguably a moral obligation to prioritise meeting the needs of countless children living in poverty. But, it is inarguably the governments responsibility to monitor these needs and to make sure a child never goes hungry. It is the Government’s job to take responsibility when private companies attempt to prioritise profit over lives. The Prime Minister may have tried to shift the blame onto the companies directly delivering these problems, however, it was the government guidance and non reactiveness to a national food crisis which led the way for these private companies to do so.
The message seems to be that the only importance of these vulnerable children, in the eyes of the government, is what percentage of government money can be translated into private profit. Many dispute this claim and argue that companies providing the food parcel scheme can provide better nutrition for vulnerable children whose guardians may not be best placed to decide what food is most beneficial. However, it is an insult to so many to say that ‘a piece of bendy cheese’ in a ‘stale roll’ is what is best for a child’s nutrition22. It is an insult to say that a private company backed by the government providing such dismal standards think they can decide what is favourable for children, instead of other solutions such as specific food vouchers for targeted foods, or issuing healthy eating guidance alongside food vouchers given to parents.
The government cannot avoid taking responsibility for this public injustice. The food parcel provisions were outsourced. But, this prioritisation of supporting private for-profit companies rather than setting up national entities directly using government provisions to provide the free school meals scheme is questionable at the very least. Aside from this nationalisation versus privatisation debate, these private companies have, for the most part, been following the issued government guidance. The problem simply is that the government has not prioritised the UKs most vulnerable children, they have not prioritised creating standards to support healthy nutrition, and they have not prioritised overall health during the national pandemic. Yes, COVID-19 is the most imminent risk to public health. However, millions of children going malnourished daily, in a program overseen by the government itself, is a national health crisis of monumental concern. A balanced meal is the bare minimum needed to advance throughout life: not providing this is robbing our country’s children of the bare necessities they need not just to survive, but to thrive. However, our children are being denied this bare minimum. They are simply being denied their full potential.
- Statistica (2021). Number of New coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the United Kingdom (UK) since January 2020 (as of January 28, 2021), by date of report. DOA: 29/01/2021
- ‘Deaths within 28 days of positive test’ Government website update, 29th January 2021. DOA: 30/01/2021
- Snape, M. Viner, R. (2020). COVID-19 in Children and Young People. Science 370(6514) (pg 286-288)
- Reality Check (2020). ‘Free School Meals: How many children can claim them?’ BBC News, 26th October 2020. DOA: 27/01/2021
- Department for Education (2018). ‘Free school meals: guidance for local authorities, maintained schools, academies and free schools’ April 2018. DOA: 27/01/2021
- Eleanor Lawrie (2021). ‘Covid: What free school meals are children supposed to get’ BBC News, 14th January 2021. DOA: 27/01/2021
- Prime Minister announces national lockdown’ Government Press Release, 4th January 2021. DOA: 27/01/2021
- Norris, S. (2021). ‘Message is Kids’ Only Value Is The Percentage of Public Money that Can Be Turned into Private Profit’ Byline Times, 12th January 2021. DOA: 27/01/2021
- Providing school meals during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak’ Government Guidance Update, 8th January 2021. DOA: 27/01/2021
- Whittaker, F. (2021). ‘Food parcels fiasco: How the pandemic exposed free school meals failures…again’ Schools Week, 14th January 2021. DOA: 27/01/2021
- Peat, J. (2021). ‘Outsourced free school meal parcels slammed as parents given carrot stubs in measly support packages’ The London Economic, 12th January 2021. DOA: 27/01/2021
- Norris, S. (2021): ibid
- ‘Providing school meals during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak’: ibid
- Norris, S. (2021): ibid
- Whittaker, F. (2021): ibid
- Panjwani, A. (2021). ‘Clearing up some of the confusion over free school meals’ Full Fact Economy, 19th January 2021. DOA: 27/01/2021
- Whittaker, F. (2021): ibid
- Whittaker, F. (2021): ibid
- ‘Free school meals: Mother’s ‘sadness’ at ‘mean’ food parcel’ BBC News, 13th January 2021. DOA: 27/01/2021
- LACA (2021). ‘Free School Meals – Guidance on producing food parcels’ LACA View, 14th January 2021. DOA: 27/01/2021
- Whittaker, F. (2021): ibid
- ‘Free school meals: Mother’s ‘sadness’ at ‘mean’ food parcel’: ibid