LONDON – The grocery package spread out on a carpet contained a can of beans, an assortment of fruits, vegetables, snacks, and sliced bread and cheese – provisions of a government program that offers free lunch to low-income students.
But when pictures of the parcels being delivered to students at home as a lockdown were posted on social media across schools across England this week, they were sharply condemned by parents and anti-hunger activists like soccer star Marcus Rashford.
The portions were skimpy, raising concerns about whether children were getting enough food during the coronavirus pandemic and the government had paid too much for them, critics said.
“Public funds were burdened with £ 30 or more than $ 40,” said a parent, who posted a popular photo on Twitter of a package that she said was supposed to take 10 days. Compared to items in her local supermarket, she said, “I would have bought this for £ 5.22.”
Chartwells, a contractor responsible for delivering the lunch package posted on Twitter, said Tuesday that the photo contained enough for five days of school lunches, not ten, and that the fee for it, including distribution costs, totaled about $ 14 amounted to.
But that wasn’t enough to quell the outcry, and on Wednesday the government said it would reintroduce voucher programs next week that would allow parents to purchase meals for themselves.
Under the program, schools that received lunch funding for low-income students were incentivized for sending packed lunches to their homes. The food should be used to prepare “healthy lunches” and to provide “special diets” to students, according to the Ministry of Education website.
The mother, whose photo went viral, welcomed the news of the turnaround. “Most people can collect a lot more kilometers with the vouchers than with anything in their bags and boxes,” said the woman, who was identified only as Lisa, on the radio station “Leading Britain’s Conversation”.
On Monday, Chartwells said it would reimburse costs “if our grocery packages had not met our usual high standards” and “apologize to all concerned.” A free breakfast is included in the packages that will be sent from January 25th.
Jan. 14, 2021, 9:51 p.m. ET
Mr Rashford, who plays for Manchester United and was a driving force behind free food programs during the pandemic, described the packages as “unacceptable” and said Prime Minister Boris Johnson had promised him a “full supply chain review”.
“These grocery packages do not meet the standards we set and we made it clear to the company involved that this is a shame,” Johnson said on Twitter.
“The photos shared on social media last night and today are completely unacceptable and do not reflect the high standard of free school meals we are likely to send to children,” said Vicky Ford, Minister for Children and Families.
However, some critics accused the government of shifting the blame on the contractors, saying it was a sign of major struggles that marginalized people facing the UK faced deep in another lockdown.
“It’s really shocking to see profit being made in this crisis,” said Kath Dalmeny, executive director of Sustain, a food and agriculture charity. She added that there was a lack of transparency about how large companies were getting contracts and that the government had not sufficiently recognized that low-income families would struggle to get food during the lockdown.
The free meal plan was offered to students from households receiving government benefits, including those earning less than £ 7,400 a year after tax.
But families who earn above that threshold also have difficulty putting food on the table, Ms. Dalmeny said.
“Our government has a deep political prejudice about giving people money – even in a pandemic,” she added. “Unfortunately, it’s the children who end up suffering.”
The incident was part of a pattern of private companies being placed in government contracts to maximize quality in order to maximize profits, according to The Good Law Project, a governance watchdog. Mr Johnson’s administration has awarded billions of dollars in pandemic contracts to companies that have political ties, lack of relevant experience, and controversy, and often pursue them faster than the competition.
“There is a culture of central government that is simply not interested in providing quality services to the population,” said Jolyon Maugham, the group’s director, adding that the country needs more ways to achieve accountability and transparency .
According to government figures, around 1.4 million children took free school meals in the 2019-2020 school year.
Of the photos, Ms. Dalmeny said they went viral because they spoke to people’s hearts. “If you imagine feeding a child with it week after week.”