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Free school meals: Rashford raises concerns after parcels outcry

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Marcus Rashford has raised concerns about the supply of food parcels to children on free school meals in England while schools are in lockdown.

The footballer hadshared images of what appeared to be the parcels, saying they were "just not good enough".

It prompted Downing Street to stress the food in these parcels should be healthy. The children's minister is investigating "urgently".

Rashford said "we must do better", adding children should not go hungry.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We are aware of the images and clear that the contents of these food parcels are completely unacceptable.

"Food parcels should contain food that parents can use to make healthy lunches throughout the week," he added.

The Department for Education, which has clear guidelines for parcels, will shortly be opening a similar voucher scheme to the one operational during the first school lockdown, the spokesman added.

'Double the price'

During the lockdown, schools have been told to continue providing free meals for those who are learning at home and have currently been urged to use their usual caterers to offer food parcels.

If schools cannot provide parcels, they can consider other arrangements, which might include vouchers for local shops and supermarkets, the Department for Education says.

A number of images were shared online which appeared to show packages with small amounts of food supplied – many of which are supposed to last for 10 days.

One picture that has been retweeted 15,000 times on Twitter and received 36,000 likes shows two carrots, two potatoes and a tin of baked beans among a small range of food items.

The person who posted the photo said in her tweet that the food was supposed to cover lunches for one child for 10 days and was instead of £30 in food vouchers.

She has claimed repeatedly that Chartwells supplied the parcel, but they have not been able to confirm whether it is their hamper or not.

Rashford then held a meeting with Chartwells, who asked him to make it clear a picture in circulation was not one of their hampers.

'Degrading'

But others have also complained about the food being provided by schools generally.

Mother-of-three, 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.

"Even the teaching staff were quite embarrassed by giving them out," Ms Wilks, 38, said.

"I think what's really bugged me about it is the fact that there's two pieces of square cheese wrapped in cling film – I just find it so degrading."

Chef Wayne Sullivan, who lives in the Cotswolds and has three school-age children, said food parcels were not yet being provided at his children's schools.

'Horrified'

Instead, he has been collecting packed lunches – made by a food company – for two of his boys, aged seven and eight, from their school each day until the hampers are ready.

He said he was "horrified" by the contents and posted an image online.

Mr Sullivan, a former MasterChef contestant, told the BBC: "I was horrified. I know how much the companies are given to feed children and there's probably about 55p worth of food. It's not been prepared with any care or attention, and nutritionally it's not balanced."

Meanwhile some head teachers have been going to extraordinary lengths to make sure their pupils can eat.

Zane Powles, assistant head teacher at Western Primary School in Grimsby, said the night after the school lockdown was announced, he went to the supermarket to get "all our packed lunches for the next two days".

What he bought was "much better" and cheaper than what he gets from the company he uses, he said

A spokesman for Laca, the School Food People, said it was "disappointed to see the pictures of food parcels circulating on social media.

"They simply do not meet the standards."

image copyrightWayne Sullivam
image captionWayne Sullivan said he was "horrified" by the contents of his boys' packed lunches

After initially sharing images of food parcels, Rashford later tweeted that he had a meeting with Chartwells, a school lunch provider.

Rashford shared some "key points" from his conversation with Chartwells.

In a Twitter thread, the England international said he had been told free school meals hampers are "distributed to provide 10 lunch meals per child across 2 weeks", adding: "Is 1 meal a day from Mon-Fri sufficient for children most vulnerable?"

Rashford went on to ask why independent businesses which "struggled their way through 2020" cannot be mobilised to support distribution of food packages and said it was "unacceptable" that children should go hungry due to poor communication and a lack of transparency.

"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," the footballer added.

'Woefully inadequate'

Reacting to the initial images, Sir Keir Starmer tweeted that the food appeared to be "woefully inadequate" and said it needed "sorting immediately".

Children's minister Vicky Ford said: "Food parcels should cover all lunchtime meals and be nutritious.

"We've increased funding for parcels and will support local vouchers – national voucher also rolling out ASAP, working night and day on this. Hope your kids are ok."

After announcing her plans to investigate, Ms Ford also defended the use of parcels instead of vouchers for families in need.

She added: "One of the reasons why some schools have used food parcels rather than vouchers is that it helps keep them in touch with families."

What does guidance on food parcels say?

  • parcels should contain food items rather than pre-prepared meals due to food safety considerations
  • minimise the fridge and freezer space that schools and families will need to store foods
  • contain items which parents can use to prepare healthy lunches for their child/children across the week
  • not rely on parents having additional ingredients at home to prepare meals
  • not contain items restricted under the school food standards
  • cater for pupils who require special diets, for example, allergies, vegetarians or religious diets – schools should ensure there are systems in place to avoid cross-contamination
  • contain appropriate packaging sizes for household use, rather than wholesale sizes

The DfE says it will open a national scheme to provide supermarket vouchers via an online portal "as soon as possible".

In a statement, Chartwells said it had "worked hard to produce food hampers at incredibly short notice".

It said the hampers were put together last week based on the cost of a free school meal allowance – £2.34 per pupil per day (which is £11.70 a week) – though the government was increasing this by £3.50 a week per pupil as of Friday 8 January.

It said its hampers for two weeks, which were reviewed on a regular basis in light of supply, contained:

  • Cheese (200g)
  • Six red apples
  • Four oranges
  • Four bananas
  • Two cucumbers
  • Four carrots
  • Eight baked potatoes
  • One lettuce
  • Two tomatoes
  • 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
  • Six yoghurts
media captionRashford’s mum says she worked three jobs, but still couldn't afford to feed herself sometimes

Rashford has been a high-profile campaigner for children on free school meals.

His child poverty campaign prompted the government to U-turn on free meals over the summer holidays.

Last month, after a million people signed his petition, the UK government announced a £170m winter grant to help support families in need from early December.

It also said up to £220m would be available to help local authorities across England set up free holiday clubs providing food and activities for children eligible for free school meals, covering the Easter, summer and Christmas holidays in 2021.

In Wales, free school meals during the holidays has been extended by a year, and the Northern Ireland Executive made a pledge in November to provide free school meals in holidays until Easter 2022.

In Scotland – where holiday provision is currently promised up to Easter 2021 – both the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives have pledged to fund free school meals for all primary school pupils during term-time and holidays if they win the 2021 Scottish election.

Have you received a food parcel? Share your experiences. Email haveyoursay@bbc.co.uk.

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