Published: 14:18, 12 January 2021
| Updated: 22:20, 12 January 2021
Downing Street has said the contents of some free school meal food parcels sent to families are “completely unacceptable” and the Government is looking into the issue.
It came as the Government faced calls to urgently roll out its national free school meal voucher scheme after images shared on social media showed poor quality and low value packages sent to families during the lockdown.
Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford – who has been behind a drive to get free school meals to children who need them – called for the system to be fixed “quickly”.
Education food service provider Chartwells has apologised after one mother posted an image of a parcel estimated to contain just over £5 worth of food.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “We’re aware of those images circulating on social media, and it is clear that the contents of those food parcels are completely unacceptable.
“The Department for Education is looking into this urgently and the minister for children, Vicky Ford, is speaking to the company responsible and they will be making it clear that boxes like this should not be given to families.”
Children and families minister Vicky Ford said she met the managing director of Chartwells on Tuesday “and he has assured me they have taken immediate action to stop further deliveries of poor-quality parcels. They will ensure schools affected are compensated and they will provide additional food to the eligible child in line with our increased funding.”
She said the Government will demand that all caterers meet the standards set and deliver high-quality lunches to eligible children, and will set out further details on Wednesday.
MPs, paediatrics and sector leaders called for a review of food packages being sent out to families after parents shared images of meals they received.
Department for Education (DfE) guidance says schools should work with their school catering team or food provider to provide food parcels to eligible free school meal children at home during the lockdown.
The guidance, updated on Friday, says schools can also provide meals by providing vouchers for a local shop or supermarket, or by using the DfE’s national voucher scheme, “which will reopen shortly”.
A head teachers’ union said schools have been left having to “piece together” food provision for pupils in the absence of a national supermarket voucher scheme for children eligible for free school meals.
The Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said she is concerned that preference appears to be being given to parcels “rather than vouchers which would let families make choices about their food”.
She said her department was following up concerns with the DfE about “the standard, adequacy and nutritional value of food boxes”.
Doctors at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) have written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson calling for a review of food packages delivered to pupils eligible for free school meals.
It came after Twitter user Roadside Mum, sharing an image of the food parcel she received, said: “2 days jacket potato with beans, 8 single cheese sandwiches, 2 days carrots, 3 days apples, 2 days soreen, 3 days frubes.
“Spare pasta & tomato. Will need mayo for pasta salad.
“Issued instead of £30 vouchers. I could do more with £30 to be honest.”
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 10 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.”
Rashford tweeted another picture and wrote: “3 days of food for 1 family… Just not good enough. Then imagine we expect the children to engage in learning from home.
“Not to mention the parents who, at times, have to teach them who probably haven’t eaten at all so their children can… We MUST do better.”
The footballer, who said he had reached out to Chartwells, tweeted that the company had clarified that they were not the exclusive supplier of free school meals across the UK.
He said he looked forward to hearing the outcome of a meeting between the DfE and Chartwells, adding: “Something is going wrong and we need to fix it, quickly!”
A Chartwells spokesperson added: “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.”
One mother told PA that families who had been given “degrading” food parcels as part of the free school meals programme were being treated “like dirt”.
Kerry Wilks, from Redcar in north-east England, received a package at her youngest child’s school containing a loaf of bread, three yoghurts, a tin of beans, tuna, two potatoes, four pieces of fruit and two slices of cheese.
Dr Max Davie, officer for health improvement at the RCPCH, said: “In the last 24 hours, we’ve seen multiple examples of food parcels provided to families through the free school meals programme.
“As a paediatrician, I can say the contents are not nutritionally sufficient for children and young people. Children who rely on free school meals have worse health outcomes than their peers and deserve proper help. The examples shared are an insult to the dignity of people who rely on this support.”
He added: “We call on Government to urgently review its supplier list and to provide the resource needed for local authorities to offer flexibility for families in how they want to receive this vital support.
“Some local authorities give vouchers or cash payments. Not every family is the same, but every family deserves to be treated with respect.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The Government needs to get a move on with reopening the national free school meal voucher scheme.
“Schools have been left having to piece together provision by arranging for food parcels and local vouchers. As we have seen from these images online of inadequate food parcels, this can go wrong, and we need the availability of a universal system.”
Local authorities and schools decide which free school meals provider to use and contracts are not awarded centrally from the Government, the DfE said.