Marcus Rashford has called for an urgent and comprehensive review of the free school meals system across the UK in the wake of the controversy over the pitiful standard of some food parcels delivered to struggling families in England over the past few days by private catering firms.
The footballer’s End Child Food Poverty alliance has asked the government to review whether free school meals are available to enough families, whether the level of funding is adequate, and what school food lessons can be learned from the impact of the pandemic on low-income families.
The call came hours after the prime minister, Boris Johnson, admitted in a call with the Manchester United striker that the quality of some food parcels had been sub-standard.
The government on Wednesday abandoned its “food parcel first” approach and said schools could choose instead to issue vouchers to the parents of children on free school meals.
The U-turn came as Labour pointed out the government’s own guidance on what should be in food parcels was strikingly similar to images of the contents of food parcels circulating on social media that the prime minister described as “unacceptable”.
The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, confronted Johnson with the guidance at prime ministers’ questions on Wednesday, saying: “So, he blames others, but this is on his watch. The truth is, families come last under this government, whether it’s exams, free school meals or childcare.”01:57 PMQs: Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer spar over 'unacceptable' free school meal parcels – video
Scores of parents had tweeted photographs earlier this week of the meagre food parcels they had received, ostensibly to provide a week’s worth of lunches for their children, provoking widespread outrage. The parcels were criticised by Rashford, poverty campaigners, nutritionists and paediatricians.
On Wednesday afternoon, Johnson tweeted: “I totally agree with you @MarcusRashford, these food parcels do not meet the standards we set out and we have made it clear to the company involved that this is disgraceful.”
Rashford subsequently tweeted: “Thanks to the efforts of individuals, businesses, charities, educators, and govt so many of our vulnerable children have been helped during this pandemic and we should be proud of what we have achieved so far. That being said, there is so much work to be done.
“This year has shown us how dangerous and life-altering many children’s access to food is and frankly too many children have been falling through the cracks, at risk of being seriously left behind.”
He added: “It’s 2021. Our eyes are open. Now is the time for a full major review of the free school meal system.”
A statement by the Food Foundation thinktank, a member of Rashford’s End Child Food Poverty alliance, and published with the backing of the footballer, said the review should include:
Widening eligibility for free school meals, and exploring whether disadvantaged children are being excluded from the scheme.
Considering how the UK can learn from Covid-19 and its impact on children in low-income families, and the implications of this for school food policy.
Examining the adequacy of current funding levels, and the financial transparency of contracts with school food providers.
The review should explicitly look at the eligibility for free school meals of the children of low-paid migrant workers and others with no recourse to public funds, who are not eligible for help under the scheme or for other social security benefits, the statement added.
“In light of recent developments on current food provision for free school meal pupils during Covid-19 school closure, we are calling on the government to conduct an urgent comprehensive review into free school meal policy across the UK to feed into the next spending review,” it said.
It added: “The review should be debated in parliament and published before the summer holidays.”
Meanwhile, Chartwells, the catering supplier – and corporate member of Rashford’s alliance – whose food parcels were targeted for widespread criticism this week, has said it will add school breakfasts free of charge to its food parcels.
Its managing director, Charlie Brown, said: “We have been listening to parents and working out how we can best use our resources to do more to help.”
Chartwells said the breakfast offer, available from 25 January, would include a bloomer, bagel, butter, yoghurts, juice, milk, oats and fruit.
Asked to respond to Rashford’s calls for a root and branch review of free school meals policies, the Department for Education said ministers had held talks with several school food suppliers on Wednesday, including Chartwells.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said: “The contents of some of the food parcels we’ve all seen were clearly unacceptable and we will not tolerate substandard packages being provided to children.
“I know there are many examples of good lunch parcels and I’m grateful to those caterers who are working hard with schools to provide nutritious, balanced lunches for children.
“Where this isn’t happening, we’ve set out a clear process for parents to raise concerns so appropriate action can be taken, by contacting their schools in the first instance or calling the department helpline.
“We have also urged schools, academy trusts and councils to take robust action, including cancelling a contract where necessary.”
According to official pre-pandemic figures, about 1.4 million children in England are on free school meals. Some estimates suggest as many as 900,000 more children may have been registered since March as a result of family incomes being hit hard by the Covid crisis.
Eligibility for free school meals is restricted to children in households where parents claim out-of-work benefits, including some on universal credit. Widening eligibility was a key recommendation of the government-commissioned national food plan published in July, and is a central demand of Rashford’s campaign.
The plan, drawn up by a panel headed by the government adviser and restaurant entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby, said 1.5 million more seven- to 16-year-olds in England in households claiming universal credit should get free school lunches, at a cost of £670m a year.