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Government To Issue Warning To Caterers As Emergency Meetings Held Over “Unacceptable” Free School Meal Boxes

Images on social media showing meagre food parcels attracted outrage (Twitter/RoadsideMum)

5 min read

Caterers providing free school meal parcels for the country’s poorest children will be given a stark warning by the Department for Education over inadequate box contents.

Outrage was sparked after images of some of the parcels provided by companies including Chartwells and Harrisons, and containing items such as half a pepper and a chunk of carrot, were shared by angry parents on social media.

Some parents questioned whether the boxes met the £30 allowance that a child would be entitled to for two weeks. One image, shared by an unnamed mother on Twitter, showed she had been given what she belived was around £5 worth of food to last her children 10 days.

Company bosses from Chartwells are being hauled before DfE officials later today in an attempt to get to the bottom of the fiasco, which has caught the attention of child poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford.

Children’s minister Vicky Ford is speaking to company Chartwell about the food they were providing in their parcels.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Those parcels that were shown in the images were unacceptable, which is why DfE is looking into it urgently. “

The DfE is due to open the national free school meals voucher scheme for families who don’t get the parcels.

The issue has attracted the attention of Premier League footballer and food poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford, who gained recognition last year after he successfully lobbied the government to continue providing free school meals to children over the summer holiday.

Mr Rashford has branded the parcels “unacceptable”, and revealed on Twitter that he’d had his own meeting with Chartwells earlier on Tuesday. 

Government officials are apparently not ruling out reprimands for the firm and are urgently looking into the quality of what is being provided to children.

A spokesperson for Chartwells said: “We have had time to investigate the picture circulated on Twitter. For clarity this shows five days of free school lunches (not ten days) and the charge for food, packing and distribution was actually £10.50 and not £30 as suggested. However, in our efforts to provide thousands of food parcels a week at extremely short notice we are very sorry the quantity has fallen short in this instance.

“Our ten-day hampers typically include a wide variety of nutritious food items to support the provision of lunches for children.

“We are further enhancing our food parcels following the Department for Education’s additional allowance of £3.50 per week per child in line with nutritional guidelines, in addition we welcome the DofE procurement notice for schools issued today.

“We would like to thank Marcus Rashford and the Permanent Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, Vicky Ford, for their collaboration as we navigate these difficult times.”

Karen Buck, Labour MP for Westminster North, also shared a photograph from one mother this morning showing meagre amounts of food reportedly for five days worth of lunches.

She said: “We are getting examples of the food parcels which are clearly inadequate and clearly falling well short of the kind of charge that is being made for providing them. That’s what we need to get to the bottom of.

“Food parcels in 99 percent of cases are not an appropriate alternative to providing people with cash or vouchers. People need to be able to make their own decisions about what they buy and what they cook. It’s just not the right way to do this.”

Families eligible for free school meals can still claim their entitlement while schools are shut during the third lockdown either via a voucher scheme or food parcels provided via school catering services.

PoliticsHome understands that the government is providing £30 a week to outsourced firms for a box of food for two children, or £30 for a box for one child over two weeks. 

The voucher scheme has yet to be relaunched, and official government guidance says schools are “strongly encouraged to work with their school catering team or food supplier to adopt a food parcel first approach”.

Local authorities are overseeing the delivery of the items through catering firms, which in many cases are the usual firms that provide the same school’s dinners.

There have also been issues with local authorities delivering the correct food parcels, not just the major catering companies.

Mark Longstaff, North Tyneside Council Head of Commissioning and Asset Management, said: “Provision for those in receipt of free school meals was set up quickly and some suppliers have not been able to provide what was asked for because of the timescales involved and the number of hampers required.”

The authority is now setting up its own voucher scheme to help children on free school meals in a more efficient way.

The Department for Education is understood to be reissuing guidance to caterers and speaking to other firms individually immediately.

Current guidance available on the government website states food parcels should “contain items which parents can use to prepare healthy lunches” and “not rely on parents having additional ingredients at home to prepare meals”. 

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