Aside from a brief period of time where a six pack of toilet roll was worth the same on the black market as gold, most of us have a rough idea of what we can expect our groceries to cost.
But if the standard test for realism in a public figure has long been knowing the price of a pint of milk, it seems members of the UK’s Conservative government – and crucially, those it’s employed to feed the nation’s most disadvantaged children in lockdown – are critically out of touch.
How else to explain a £30 shop that features a loaf of bread, some cheese slices, one tin of beans, four raw vegetables, five pieces of fruit, a bag of pasta, three Frubes, two cake bars and one lonely tomato, total cost in Asda approximately £5.25?
Even the most frugal cook would struggle to make that account for a week’s worth of lunches for two children without additional ingredients. And yet, this is what was reportedly given to Twitter user @RoadsideMum this week, in place of £30 of supermarket vouchers under a scheme the government claims will prevent children from going hungry during the latest pandemic lockdown. Oh yes, and it was actually supposed to last her ten days.
Initially the government attempted to pass the incident off as an exception, with children’s minister Vicky Ford saying she would be looking into the matter “urgently”.?”.
But is this an isolated case, one hurriedly half-packed bag? Sadly, it would appear not. For in the immediate aftermath of Roadside Mum’s post, footballer turned school meals campaigner Marcus Rashford entered the fray, posting his own photograph of a government weekly meals box.
“Three days of food for one family. Just not good enough,” he wrote, adding a photo of a box containing eight small paper bags – sandwiches? – plus four apples, one tin of beans, two cartons of juice, one single serve jelly pouch, and two sweet treats. “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,” he added. “This is 2021.”
In response, the Department for Education stated: “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.”
Labour leader Kier Starmer, meanwhile, raged: “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.”
Where is the money going indeed?
In short, it’s going to private companies – though the picture is somewhat more convoluted than that.
Initially, the government refused to extend school meals over holidays, with some MPs expressing concern that supermarket vouchers could be misspent. Famously, Tory MP Ben Bradley was forced to retract a Tweet suggesting a link between meal funding and “brothels and crack dens”.
But as Bootstap Cook, Jack Monroe, explained on Twitter yesterday, “The vouchers were a good idea. They were BLOCKED from being spent on age restricted products, like alcohol, lottery tickets, cigarettes. Despite this restriction, mouthpieces on Twitter with their own austerity agendas claimed that there was widespread misuse. With no evidence.”
Nevertheless, though the government eventually performed a U-turn, providing funding for England to continue to provide meals during school closures, as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the vouchers were lost. In a critical change to previous schemes, the government handed funding for food to local authorities, who in turn were asked to run meal provision services instead.
Since then, this holiday provision scheme, now hastily extended to cover lockdown, has seen local authorities turn to existing caterers or private companies to fill the groceries gap – firms such as Chartwells, the company named in an email as the provider of Roadside Mum’s meals.
Apologising for the meagre contents of her food box, the company insisted “this does not reflect the specification of one of our hampers” – but its involvement in the incident has raised further questions about the reliability of the new system.
Chartwells is among a number of companies saying they cannot cater to specific dietary requirements. The government has said it is up to parents to remove items their children cannot tolerate – but if a food parcel contains only cheese sandwich ingredients and snacks, what is a coeliac or dairy-intolerant child to eat?
Furthermore, Chartwells is part of Compass Group, which also received a £15 million Government contract this year to manage COVID-testing sites. That the firm’s former chairman, Paul S Walsh, was previously identified as a Conservative party donor has also once again raised eyebrows – and anger.
Into the fray
Yesterday, as Jack Monroe confirmed she had been privately helping families work out what to do with the contents of their ‘hampers’, Marcus Rashford met with Chartwells bosses himself, before sharing some key points of the conversation on Twitter. He said the firm told him hampers are “distributed to provide ten lunch meals per child across two weeks”, adding: “Is one meal a day from Mon-Fri sufficient for children most vulnerable?”
The England star went on to say: “One thing that is clear is that there was very little communication with the suppliers that a national lockdown was coming. We MUST do better. Children shouldn’t be going hungry on the basis that we aren’t communicating or being transparent with plans. That is unacceptable.”
Chartwells, in turn, said it had “worked hard to produce food hampers at incredibly short notice”, with an allowance of £2.34 per child per day – £3.70 less per week than parents would receive in vouchers under previous schemes.
While that allowance has now been increased, both Marcus Rashford and Roadside Mum say far more needs to be done if the government is to convince parents it genuinely cares about the health of the nation’s children. Speaking to Byline Times yesterday, she said: “The reason we are told we need bags, the reason I most often hear quoted, is that some parents abuse the system. And then you give me a bag with food I would have got for less than a fiver which doesn’t even meet the Government’s own dietary guidelines… You’re saying kids are vulnerable and mums can’t be trusted with £30, and you’re giving them a slice of bendy cheese between two bits of bread.
“These children are the future of our country. And the message we are sending is: your future is only interesting to us in terms of how much we can leech out of it. Your only value to us is what percentage of public money can we turn into private money.”
For as long as children are going hungry in Britain, it’s hard to argue…
What should a meals box contain?
In response to this week’s furore, Chartwells confirmed that the hampers it provides should contain the following…
Six red apples
Eight baked potatoes
Four cans of baked beans
1kg of pasta
Four tins of chopped tomatoes
Two tins of tuna
Four tins of green peas
One loaf of bread
Three malt loaf snacks