Contents of some food parcels sent to families ‘unacceptable’, says Number 10

Downing Street has said the contents of some free school meal food parcels sent to families are “completely unacceptable” and that the Government is urgently looking into the issue.

It came as the Government faced calls to urgently roll out its national free school meal voucher scheme after images shared on social media showed poor quality and low value packages sent to families during the lockdown.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “We’re aware of those images circulating on social media, and it is clear that the contents of those food parcels are completely unacceptable.

“The Department for Education is looking into this urgently and the minister for children, Vicky Ford, is speaking to the company responsible and they will be making it clear that boxes like this should not be given to families.”

MPs, paediatrics and sector leaders have called for a review of food packages being sent out to families after one mother posted an image of a £30 parcel estimated to contain just over £5 worth of food.

Department for Education (DfE) guidance says schools should work with their school catering team or food provider to provide food parcels to eligible free school meal children at home during the lockdown.

The guidance, updated on Friday, adds that schools can also provide meals by providing vouchers for a local shop or supermarket, or by using the DfE’s national voucher scheme, “which will reopen shortly”.

A head teachers’ union said schools have been left having to “piece together” food provision for pupils in the absence of a national supermarket voucher scheme for children eligible for free school meals.

Meanwhile, the Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said she is concerned that preference appears to be being given to parcels “rather than vouchers which would let families make choices about their food”.

Ms Longfield added that her department was following up concerns with the DfE about “the standard, adequacy and nutritional value of food boxes”.

Doctors at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) have written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson calling for a review of food packages delivered to pupils eligible for free school meals.

It came after Twitter user Roadside Mum, sharing an image of the food parcel she received, said: “2 days jacket potato with beans, 8 single cheese sandwiches, 2 days carrots, 3 days apples, 2 days soreen, 3 days frubes.

“Spare pasta & tomato. Will need mayo for pasta salad.

“Issued instead of £30 vouchers. I could do more with £30 to be honest.”

Chartwells, the education food service company which she said provided the parcel, has said it is “keen to investigate” the food parcel with the relevant school to address any potential operational issues.

Footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford tweeted another picture and wrote: “3 days of food for 1 family… Just not good enough. 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.”

Rashford, who said he had reached out to Chartwells, tweeted that the company had clarified that they were not the exclusive supplier of free school meals across the UK.

He said he looked forward to hearing the outcome of a meeting between the DfE and Chartwells, adding: “Something is going wrong and we need to fix it, quickly!”

Dr Max Davie, officer for health improvement at the RCPCH, said: “In the last 24 hours, we’ve seen multiple examples of food parcels provided to families through the free school meals programme.

“As a paediatrician, I can say the contents are not nutritionally sufficient for children and young people. Children who rely on free school meals have worse health outcomes than their peers and deserve proper help. The examples shared are an insult to the dignity of people who rely on this support.”

He added: “We call on Government to urgently review its supplier list and to provide the resource needed for local authorities to offer flexibility for families in how they want to receive this vital support.

“Some local authorities give vouchers or cash payments. Not every family is the same, but every family deserves to be treated with respect.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The Government needs to get a move on with reopening the national free school meal voucher scheme.

“Schools have been left having to piece together provision by arranging for food parcels and local vouchers. As we have seen from these images online of inadequate food parcels, this can go wrong, and we need the availability of a universal system.”

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the national free school meals voucher scheme would shortly be reopened.

Chartwells said it is fully investigating the images of food parcels circulating on social media, but the company believes many of them are not its hampers.

A spokesperson for Chartwells said: “We take our responsibility to provide children with access to nutritious food very seriously.

“We have worked hard to produce food hampers at incredibly short notice during these challenging times.

“Our hampers follow the DfE specifications and contain a variety of ingredients to support families in providing meals throughout the week. In the majority of instances, we have received positive feedback.”

On the food parcel shared by Twitter user Roadside Mum, the spokesperson acknowledged the image “falls short of our hamper specification and we are keen to investigate with the relevant school so we can address any operational issues that may have arisen”.

Local authorities and schools decide which free school meals provider to use and contracts are not awarded centrally from the Government, the DfE said.