The row over inadequate food parcels for vulnerable children saw caterers in the line of fire. But issues with free school meal provision run much deeper. Nick Hughes reports.
As soon as the image landed on social media it looked like a story ready to detonate.
“Issued instead of £30 vouchers. I could do more with £30 to be honest,” wrote Twitter user Roadside Mum of an image showing a small selection of fruit and veg, some pasta, a tin of beans, several cheese slices, three Frubes, and two mini packs of Soreen.
The food parcel – supposedly for 10 days’ food in lieu of free school meals, although the caterer in question Chartwells later insisted it was for five days only – quickly went viral. Soon, social media was flooded with images of sorry looking food parcels.
Marcus Rashford, the footballer and food poverty campaigner, said the food provided was “not good enough”. Education secretary Gavin Williamson weighed in, warning the catering sector that “this sort of behaviour is not acceptable and it will not be tolerated”.
A media narrative began to take hold that school caterers, and specifically the country’s largest provider Chartwells, were profiting from providing inadequate food to vulnerable children. A section of the food industry accustomed to operating in the shadows had suddenly and uncomfortably been thrust into the light.
There’s no disguising the fact that for Chartwells – a subsidiary of Compass Group – the image that triggered the media explosion didn’t look good. In this and other specific cases, school catering providers clearly had serious questions to answer.
Yet for the most part, the public narrative failed to consider the complexity and diversity of school catering operations, nor did it recognise the collateral damage frequent government u-turns have caused to businesses denied a reliable source of income and any kind of operational certainty since the pandemic first began. It also exposed a lack of knowledge among politicians and some journalists over how school food supply chains actually work.
More constructively, it has refuelled a debate about the entire system of free school meal provision – a system many experts feel has been dysfunctional for too long and is ripe for change.
In some ways it was plain bad luck that Chartwells found itself cast in the role of corporate baddie. After Roadside Mum’s tweet went viral the name quickly became attached (quite literally in many cases) to every meagre food parcel image posted on social media, even those for which Chartwells was not responsible. Reading some of the national media coverage it was easy to reach the conclusion that just one firm was responsible for the nationwide distribution of food parcels during this crisis.
In reality, the provision of school catering involves a complex network of national and regional caterers, local authorities, wholesalers and suppliers, each of which have played their part in trying to keep pupils nourished during these difficult, uncertain times. This network has repeatedly been ruptured over the past year as schools have been closed, then reopened, then closed again often at as little as a day’s notice.
School caterers have been thrust into dire financial straits by school closures. During the first lockdown as little as 5% of children in English schools were onsite eating a hot meal. That figure has risen to around 20% during the current lockdown but it’s still a calamitous drop from the levels caterers are used to.
Like any restaurant, pub or hotel, when a school caterer loses all its customers it loses all its money. The provision of food parcels has not helped plug the gap – in fact, as the director of one public sector caterer confides – “we provide them at a loss”. Other caterers confirm they have not been making a profit on food parcels.
Cost to serve
In some quarters, a false equivalence has been drawn between the £15 per week vouchers that were issued to parents during the first lockdown that could be spent on supermarket food, and the cost price of food contained in weekly parcels. Chartwells, for example, insists the charge for the parcel that attracted controversy was £10.50 rather than the £30 for two weeks’ food suggested.
There are many variations in how schools are funded and what caterers are contracted to provide, however caterers that receive funding to the value of the standard free school meals premium of £2.30 per pupil per day in England (funding varies across the devolved nations) would have received just £11.50 each week for the provision of food parcels. It was not until after the Chartwells furore that the government agreed to provide top-up funding of £3.50 per week. That funding had to cover not only the value of the food purchased by businesses, many of which lack the buying power of the big supermarkets, but the logistics of getting the food to schools, paying the wages of a kitchen manager to prepare the parcels and the cost of distribution to homes.
The challenge was complicated by the need to switch from wholesale to retail pack sizes, which then needed to be broken down in kitchens and portioned for individual consumption. The overnight closure of schools at the start of January led to problems securing retail-sized products meaning wholesale products, which are even harder to break down, were initially being used. Parcels have also had to be adapted based on individual allergies and dietary requirements.
Caterers used to serving hot meals in school restaurants have been learning to provide what amounts to emergency food aid on the job. Government guidance on providing free school meals during the pandemic states the benefits of providing lunch parcels include “being able to quickly set up provision as many school caterers will have experience of delivering food parcels”. In fact, many caterers had no institutional experience of providing parcels prior to the first national lockdown: “The only experience my guys would have had was as a result of lockdown one and that was a remarkable achievement in itself,” says the director of the public sector caterer.
That’s not to say that mistakes weren’t made. As Chartwells found itself in the line of fire, Compass Group UK and Ireland managing director Robin Mills admitted that the quality and quantity of the produce in the images on Twitter fell short of the caterer’s usual standards. Two weeks on, Chartwells managing director Charlie Brown explains that the business faced “logistical and operational challenges” around the provision of parcels, due to the fact it needed to get a large volume of parcels to children quickly at short notice. “It’s important to note that we successfully sent out around 18,000 parcels in week one and only a small percentage did not meet our specification as a result of some food not being received at site level. However, we know that any number of parcels not to specification is too much,” he adds.
Other caterers question Chartwells’ initial decision to deliver fortnightly parcels to some pupils which meant compromising on fresh produce. The business says it has since put in place a range of measures to address the failings: this includes moving to one-week parcels, increasing the quality and variety of products and ensuring that staff in each school sign off on batches of parcels as they leave the premises. It has also committed to provide free breakfasts to all children currently receiving a Chartwells lunch parcel for the duration of school closures and more recently has set up a free helpline for concerned schools and parents.
Across the industry caterers have now had several weeks to put in place the checks and balances needed to ensure all eligible children receive a nutritious parcel that meets school food standards. “We’ve got some really nice take home recipe cards and lots of stuff online. Photos are taken of the parcels before they go out and they are checked by the kitchen manager and their own manager,” says the director.
Some schools have even provided parcels that exceed the required amount of food. The Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) has publicised the example of Hillstone Primary School in Birmingham, where onsite chef Matthew Knight has been providing enough food for up to seven lunches using locally sourced ingredients. Indeed, supporting local suppliers is one reason why some schools continue to favour providing parcels over vouchers that end up further filling the coffers of big supermarkets.
Having initially directed schools to prioritise providing parcels (some reports suggest the catering industry lobbied for this stance), the government reintroduced the national voucher scheme in England on January 18th. Brown reveals that many Chartwells clients have nonetheless stayed with the food parcel option: “Not only do they like knowing that children are being provided with access to nutritious food, but it also provides them with an opportunity to check in with families during lockdown”. However, he also recognises that “parents want the option to choose what’s right for them” and believes the current approach is “a good compromise”.
The devolved nations have taken their own individual approaches. Northern Ireland is making payments to families in place of free school meals. Welsh authorities, meanwhile, have provided a mix of cash payments and food parcels delivered directly to families.
Of the 32 local authorities in Scotland, 25 have been providing cash payments directly into bank accounts of parents; five have been providing vouchers; and two have been providing food parcels. Jayne Jones, chair of ASSIST FM and commercial manager for commercial services at Argyll & Bute Council, notes that the two authorities that have been providing food parcels have Soil Association Food for Life accreditation “and care very deeply about the food being provided to those people”.
Scotland has a situation where a large number of schools remain open for children of key workers as well as those that are most vulnerable. Numbers are higher than they were during the first lockdown and Jones says these children are being provided with a hot meal. “It means our staff are still doing the job they want to do which is providing good, hot, sustainable food to their pupils but doing so safely in small bubbles.” For the children, Jones adds “there is still a bit of normality”.
Free meals rethink
The furore over food parcels has given fresh impetus to calls for a rethink of free school meal provision that have been growing louder ever since the first lockdown. The Food Foundation has called on the government to conduct an urgent comprehensive review into free school meal policy across the UK to feed into the next spending review. Its demands include a review of the current eligibility thresholds for free school meals across all four nations, plus mandatory monitoring and evaluation on an ongoing basis of free school meal take-up, the quality and nutritional adequacy of meals, and how the financial transparency of the current system can be improved.
These themes dominated discussion during Footprint’s recent Responsible Business Recovery Forum, which considered some of the challenges around catering in education. The gap between eligibility for free school meals and take-up was highlighted as a critical issue, as was a lack of financial transparency. Datasets were seen to be “shaky and challenging to collect” and lacking detail on what exactly goes across the hatch to children every day and how money is being spent.
“In an optimal system you would know the meals delivered [and the] quality, rather than just pouring money into a hole and hoping the job gets done,” said one speaker from a child poverty charity.
There was widespread agreement that better measurement, more accountability and improved transparency are needed. One suggestion was that school governors should publish annual reports showing what the school has done to meet the nutritional needs of children.
Last week, the government confirmed that in England free school meals would be provided until children return to schools, although not during half-term – thereby setting ministers on another collision course with campaigners like Rashford.
With 2.3 million children living in households that have experienced food insecurity during the pandemic, according to Food Foundation data, covid-19 has exposed just how thin the net is that is meant to protect young people from going hungry. It has also acted as a “wake-up call” in the words of one forum speaker “….to actually do something meaningful that makes a contribution to the life chances of the young people that we serve”.
Rows over inadequate food parcels provide good newspaper fodder but such events can also incite the political will to fix a broken system. As Louisa Britain (aka Roadside Mum) wrote in The Big Issue: “It doesn’t seem unreasonable to call for a time in which every mother in this country can trust she has food security for her child.”
When the time to have that conversation arrives parents like Britain should rightly be a part of it. But so too should caterers, whose portrayal as profiteers betrays the diligent work of many businesses and individuals in providing food to children during a period of unprecedented upheaval. “We have no income from the children we would usually have in school and yet we’re still delivering to the vulnerable children that we serve and that’s because caterers up and down the country, particularly those people that work in kitchens, are full of purpose and will do it,” says the director of the public sector caterer.
With contracts for the next school year currently up for renewal, schools will ultimately be the judge of how their own providers have risen to the challenge. But embattled caterers also deserve a fair hearing in the court of public opinion.
Footprint Intelligence’s latest report - Sustainable success in the new normal: conquering challenges in education catering in a covid-19 world – is available to download for free.