The True Cost of the Free School Meal Packages 'Worth £30'

In one case, VICE World News found that no provisions had been made for children with dietary requirements, such as allergies or intolerances.
January 12, 2021, 2:31pm
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The food parcel sent to @roadsidemen, which she was told would last "ten days". Photo via @roadsidemum, background via Pixabay

Parents in the UK have criticised the food hampers sent out to children who would normally qualify for free school meals as “shocking”.

Alongside the meagre amount of food provided in each package, VICE World News has learned that – in the case of at least one school – no provisions were made for children with specific dietary requirements, such as allergies or intolerances.

On Monday afternoon, Twitter user @roadsidemum posted an image of the hamper provided to her in lieu of vouchers, which was valued at £30. The photo of the food – which @roadsidemum valued as actually little more than £5 in total – was widely shared, drawing criticism from Labour leader Keir Starmer and footballer and child food poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford. Many other images have since surfaced showing similarly inadequate packages purportedly containing £30 worth of food.

In response, both the Department of Education and the Department of Health tweeted that they were investigating the hampers, which were provided by Chartwells, a subsidiary of the foodservice company Compass Group. 

In emails sent to @roadsidemum from her child’s school, seen by VICE World News, parents were told “this box will contain enough food for ten days” – a statement that has been widely ridiculed online. The email added that “unfortunately Chartwells are unable to provide specific food for dietary requirements so parents/carers are being requested to remove items that their child cannot have”. 

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Section 100 of the Children and Families Act 2014 states that schools have a duty to support pupils with medical conditions; government advice indicates that this could include ensuring that a child with an allergy is able to eat a school lunch. The Food Information Regulations 2014 require all food businesses – including school caterers, such as Chartwells – to show allergen information in the food they serve. 

In a statement, Chartwells told VICE World News, “For clarity, [the picture] 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.”

Speaking exclusively to VICE World News, @roadsidemum – who, along with every other interviewee, asked not to be named – said, “When the government decided in January to make all free school meals direct boxes and not vouchers, I wasn't initially concerned. I assumed the boxes would look like any supermarket offering, or a fruit and veg box of a similar value. As I unpacked the bag and laid out the items, I tried to imagine how Chartwells might have intended these lunches to be divided, and [didn’t see] any division that wasn't miserable, carb-heavy and desperately short of vegetables.”

On Tuesday morning, food writer and campaigner Jack Monroe tweeted that they had received hundreds of DMs from parents across the country, many of whom had received substandard hampers via Chartwells.

The company hit the headlines in March of 2020, during the first lockdown, when it was criticised for the “shameful” free school meals provided to students, which included crisps, bread and small packets of butter.

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In 2012, the company’s parent group, Compass, was fined $18 million (£13.1 million) for overcharging on school lunch programmes in New York. Until December of last year, the group's chairman was Paul Walsh, a former member of David Cameron’s business advisory group. The company, which joined Marcus Rashford’s Child Poverty taskforce in December, was also one of those at the centre of the horse meat scandal in 2013.

VICE World News spoke to parents across the UK who have received similar hampers in lieu of the free school meal vouchers they were previously receiving. Each parent we spoke to was given no choice but to receive packages rather than vouchers, and each received packages containing food far below the value of the vouchers. 

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A package of food sent to a parent in Westminster.

In Westminster, one parent reported receiving food which would retail at around £2.44, according to prices on the Tesco website. 

“My son was in primary school last year and we were given £15 a week to buy our own groceries,” she told VICE World News. “I was able to spread the money quite a lot and get milk, bread, a bit of meat. Then we didn’t get anything during the half-term period. My son then started secondary school in September and we had to keep asking his school for a voucher for Christmas - we eventually got £15.

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“Now, they seem to have taken that away and replaced this with [this package], which is supposed to feed my son for the entire week. This is about £4 or £5 worth [of food], so I’m not sure where the rest of the funding is going?”

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A package of food sent to a parent in North Tyneside.

In North Tyneside, one parent told VICE World News, “My daughter has been on free school meals for a while, as I’m a full-time carer for my disabled son. During previous lockdowns I’ve been receiving vouchers. I actually presumed the vouchers would begin again, until I got a parent mail saying I’d be given a free weekly food hamper for my daughter.”

The hamper was provided by local company Hutchison Catering Limited. Using prices on the Tesco website, VICE World News has estimated its contents are worth £8.22 at retail prices. Hutchison has been contacted for comment but had not replied at the time of publishing.

“It says the food hamper is for a week – it’s debatable that this will last for five days, and there isn’t any fresh meat or anything,” the mother continued. “I could understand if it’s the school paying out of their own pockets, but if it’s supposed to be £15 per child I could’ve done better myself. I used to be given mine monthly, £60.”

A parent in Northwich, Cheshire said they were “stunned” by the hamper they received just before Christmas, which was issued by catering company Edsential.

“The meal plan and the food bags we got a week before Christmas was our first look at the provisions, and I was stunned,” said the parent. “Two slices of bread in a Ziploc bag? Pre-grated cheese? Then I saw the ‘meal plans’ and just raged at how they thought we needed instructions for beans on toast.”

The parent received “one Ziploc bag of sweaty, pre-grated cheese, two eggs in a baguette bag for some reason, three apples, two satsumas, a tiny can of beans which you are supposed to split in half again, two-and-a-half carrots, an onion, a pepper, four cherry tomatoes, a third of a cucumber, what looked like half a cup of dried pasta, and maybe 25g of bread mix for making pizza”, which VICE World News has valued at approximately £3.12.

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Edsential has been contacted for comment but had not replied at the time of publishing.

In a press release this morning Tulip Siddiq, shadow minister for Children and Early Years, said, “Images circulating on social media of woefully inadequate food parcels going to families are a serious concern. The Department for Education’s investigation must happen immediately so we know where the money is going. We cannot let children go hungry during this lockdown. The government must get on and deliver the national voucher scheme it has committed to restarting to ensure that all children are able to get the food they need.”

In a statement, the Department for Education called the Chartwells package “completely unacceptable” and said the company has “taken immediate action to stop further deliveries of poor-quality parcels”, adding that they “will ensure schools affected are compensated and they will provide additional food to the eligible child in line with our increased funding”.

UPDATE 12/01/21: The statement from Chartwells was updated.

UPDATE 13/01/21: A statement from the Department of Education was added.