Families eligible for free school meals have the option of food parcels or vouchers while schools are shut due to a third national lockdown in England.
However, questions have been raised about the provision of this service after an angry mother shared her free school meal hamper on Twitter, claiming it was inadequate.
Marcus Rashford, the footballer who in 2020 successfully campaigned for free school meals during school holidays, took to social media to describe the food parcel as “unacceptable”.
The food was provided by Chartwells, one of several private companies the government has outsourced provision of free meals to.
But what was in the package, who operates Chartwells and how has the company responded to claims that their provisions are inadequate?
What was allegedly in the Chartwells hamper?
Anonymous Twitter user, @Roadsidemum, shared a picture on Twitter of her child’s free school meal hamper.
Alongside a picture of food items, she wrote: “Issued instead of £30 vouchers. I could do more with £30 to be honest.
“Public funds were charged £30. I’d have bought this for £5.22. The private company who has the free school meals contract made a good profit here.”
The picture showed two jacket potatoes, a can of beans, eight single cheese slices, a loaf of bread, two carrots, three apples, two Soreen Malt Lunchbox Loaves, three Frubes, some pasta and one tomato.
How has Chartwells responded?
In response to @roadsidemum on Twitter, the company replied: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, this does not reflect the specification of one of our hampers. Please can you DM us the details of the school that your child attends and we will investigate immediately.”
The company have now agreed to refund schools for parcels which did not meet their “usual high standards.”
Chartwells announced the refunds on 13 January, following intense backlash – with Sir Keir Starmer questioning Boris Johnson on the quality of the hampers at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The company also stated it did not distribute all of the inadequate packages which have since been shared by other parents in response to the initial tweet.
On 12 January, a spokesperson for Chartwells said the hamper did not “reflect the specification of one of our hampers”.
How have others responded?
Twitter exploded with backlash against Chartwells and the government, with over 15,000 people retweeting the initial post by @Roadsidemum.
Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford shared various other pictures parents had shared with him.
The 23-year-old wrote in one tweet: “3 days of food for 1 family, just not enough”, alongside a photo of seven small paper sandwich bags of items, four apples, two packets of raisins, one yogurt, one portion of oatcakes and a tin of beans.
Another hamper contained two cans of baked beans, two bananas, half a pepper, several loose slices of bread, one potato, one carrot, two eggs, one onion and two ziplock bags of cheese and pasta.
The mother who received this food parcel commented: “This is my picture and what I received. How can you say this is three days worth of food for an eight-year-old? What do I do with a tin of beans, raisins and some snacks? Laughable!”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has added to the conversation, he tweeted: "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."
The Department of Education has now stated it is also investigating the small amount of food sent to families in some council areas.
In a Tweet on Tuesday, 12 January, the Department of Education responded to Chartwells’ comment, stating: “We are looking into this. We have clear guidelines and standards for food parcels, which we expect to be followed. Parcels should be nutritious and contain a varied range of food."
What is Chartwells and who owns it?
Chartwells is a private catering company and the education catering arm of food service giant, Compass Group.
The world’s largest caterer, Compass Group is a global food service company, working across 45 countries and employing 600,000 people.
The company made an operating profit of £561m in 2020, down from £1,852m in 2019, according to cityam.com.
Compass Group states on its website: “Our education catering and food services team are proud to serve millions of nutritious, fun and tasty meals to students in schools, academies, colleges and universities across England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.”
It focuses on three key areas according to its website. These are:
- Food waste
- Environmental impact including climate change
- Responsible sourcing - stating “resilient and sustainable supply chains”
As well as providing catering to the education sector, Compass Group also supplies food to sports and leisure facilities, hospitals and care homes, defence and offshore companies and private businesses.
It was revealed on 6 January that the company’s chairman Paul Walsh - the former Diageo chief executive - would be stepping down from his position to pursue other interests.
Compass Group is currently looking to fill his position.
Walsh, a former member of David Cameron’s business advisory group, is thought to have donated more than £10,000 to the UK Conservative party.
British businessman Dominic Blakemore, 51, has been CEO of Compass Group since January 2018 and reportedly earns £4.6m a year, according to Wallmine.
What should be included in a school meal replacement hamper?
According to the government website, hampers should:
- contain food items rather than pre-prepared meals due to food safety considerations
- minimise the fridge and freezer space that schools and families will need to store foods
- contain items which parents can use to prepare healthy lunches for their child/children across the week
- not rely on parents having additional ingredients at home to prepare meals
- not contain items restricted under the school food standards
- cater for pupils who require special diets, for example, allergies, vegetarians or religious diets - schools should ensure there are systems in place to avoid cross-contamination
- contain appropriate packaging sizes for household use, rather than wholesale sizes
What are the UK government’s free school meals alternatives?
Children who would otherwise receive a free school meal are entitled to food vouchers or hampers while schools in England are closed until mid-February.
Parents and carers of school-aged children who are entitled to school meals have been given the choice between a food voucher to last 10 days, or a food hamper to the value of the voucher.
The UK government website states all infant school children and eligible secondary school pupils should make use of one of:
- food parcels through the school catering team or food provider
- providing vouchers for a local shop or supermarket
- using the Department for Education’s national voucher scheme, which will reopen shortly
Guidance also informs schools that they can apply for an extra £3.50 per pupil to provide meals during the coronavirus pandemic, as kids will be fed at home. This is in addition to any entitlement the child was already receiving.
The UK government recommends that schools seek to provide their own food hampers, in order to ensure children receive nutritious food on a regular basis.
Ministers also suggest school staff delivering hampers would act as a point of contact for teaching staff to engage with vulnerable children and families who may not otherwise receive regular visits.
The government website states that if food parcels cannot be provided by a school, the schools can claim to be reimbursed up to £15 per eligible FSM pupil per week, equating to £30 for ten days.