BISHOPS have deplored private companies’ alleged “profiteering” from child hunger after pictures circulated on social media of free school-meal hampers worth less than the funds provided by the Government to feed vulnerable families.
Last year, the Department for Education provided free school-meal vouchers, worth £30 over ten days, directly to families who were eligible while the schools were closed during the first lockdown. This year, the cash was given to private companies to provide food hampers worth the same amount to cover the same period.
On Wednesday, however, the Government announced that it would be reinstating the voucher system, after a picture circulated of a hamper provided by the private company Chartwells. It shows one loaf of white bread, a bag of pasta, a can of baked beans, some cheese, three apples, two carrots, a tomato, two baked potatoes, two bananas, two malt loaf snacks, and three snack-size tubes of yogurt.
Comparisons with the total cost of these groceries bought from a supermarket prompted an outcry.
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, told the Church Times on Wednesday: “It is quite impossible to find words strong enough with which to condemn a situation in which private companies seem able to profiteer by subjecting children to hunger and in which Government appears once again to have failed in a core promise to keep our young people secure and safe at a time of national crisis.
“Without the network of voluntary and church-run food distribution centres up and down the country we would by now be seeing chronic and serious malnutrition in a nation whose GDP is the one of the largest in the world. But there is a limit to the size of the safety net that voluntary and community-based organisations can cast. It is time for companies to start behaving ethically and Government to start acting decisively.”
The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said that the “scandal” was not isolated. “From the PPE shortage to ‘test and trace’ and onwards, ten months of the Covid pandemic have repeatedly shown three failures. Firstly, a dangerous disconnect between nationally managed procurement practices and the real needs of people in communities up and down the country.
“Secondly, an inability to own and admit to even the most glaring of mistakes.
“Thirdly, a refusal to rethink failed policies until far too late. The school meals scandal is not an isolated incident, it is one symptom of a wider cultural and moral problem, one that needs to be addressed urgently.”
The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said that he was “absolutely disgusted” by the photo and would “support any school that needs to take action”.
Chartwells said in a statement that it had investigated the picture. “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.”
The footballer Marcus Rashford, who led the campaign for free school meals last summer (News, 19 June), said that, after a meeting with Chartwells on Tuesday, he still had concerns about the free school-meal (FSM) hampers. “FSM Hampers are currently distributed to provide 10 lunch meals per child across two weeks. This concerns me firstly as I relied on breakfast club, FSM and after-school clubs. Is one meal a day from Mon-Fri sufficient for children most vulnerable?
“We have so many independent businesses who have struggled their way through 2020 — why can’t we mobilize them to support the distribution of food packages? Or am I being naïve?”
Dr Walker said: “It should not require a football player to share images of a free schools meals pack to shame our Government into action. Nor should it require a mother to expose a picture of her child’s woefully inadequate food offer.”
On social media, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, described the picture as a “disgrace”; the Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Revd Martin Gorick, said that it was “shameful”.
Other pictures have since emerged of food provisions of similar size from other providers. They include single or cut-up vegetables (one shows half a tomato and a quarter of a carrot) and pre-portioned bread, fish, and meat in plastic bags or boxes.
The Revd Lizzi Green, who is Assistant Curate of Gossops Green and Bewbush, in the diocese of Chichester, said that she had been “shocked” by the pictures. “As someone who grew up in poverty [Comment, Podcast, 30 October], I am only too aware of the importance of nutritious free school meals — often the only hot food a child will have the chance to eat that day. To provide such paltry rations shows not only an ignorance of the ongoing effects of hunger and poverty on children, but a deep contempt for the most vulnerable in our society. . .
“It is also deeply insulting to suggest that a family is unable to make their own decisions about how best to feed their child.”
She welcomed the switch back to vouchers for free school meals. “The benefits of this as a system are both practical and emotional: it allows parents the chance to choose the food they know their child will eat, and it removes the indignity of having no agency over what is provided.
“In my own parish, we have schools with a high number of children in receipt of free school meals. These are often families who are disadvantaged in several ways, and I grieve that the food-parcel situation has added yet another burden and stigma to those already dealing with so much.
“This is now the second time the Government has had to make a major U-turn on provision of meals for vulnerable children. I am praying that there will not be a third.”
On Wednesday, the Church Commissioners were part of a coalition of asset owners, managers, and other finance industry stakeholders — CCLA, representing £3 trillion in assets — who wrote to the Compass Group calling for answers to “critical questions” regarding the provision of food parcels by its subsidiary, Chartwells.
While the signatories welcome the clarification and apology issued by Chartwells, they ask for further information on the provision and value of food items; analysis of the accuracy of pricing and healthy balance of items in the boxes; and a plan “to address the concerns raised by the media”.
The letter continues: “As the nation has rallied behind campaigns, such as the one led by footballer Marcus Rashford, to ensure that no child goes without a nutritious meal, we believe that an insufficient response to this issue could raise questions about the Group’s commitment to your stated guiding principles and values and has the potential to cause significant reputational damage to Compass Group.”