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Free school meals: Food Foundation demands urgent review of Government policy

After days of free school meals scandal, food inequality campaigners want the Government to investigate the system - and let Parliament debate their findings
The items in a food parcel designed to replace £30 in supermarket vouchers. Image: @RoadsideMum

Food insecurity experts are calling for the Government to immediately investigate its free school meals policy after pictures of spartan food packages for poor children sparked anger online.

Backing calls from England footballer-turned food poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford, the Food Foundation demanded ministers reassess the current eligibility thresholds across all four nations and review how well the free school meals scheme is supporting pupil’s well-being.

The announcement followed widespread outcry over the cash and nutritional value of parcels being delivered to pupils learning from home in lockdown.

Sticking plasters & short term solutions will not suffice. Now is the time to act,” the charity tweeted, alongside six demands for reform.

Parents, food inequality researchers and teachers including the National Education Union backed the call to fight food poverty.

Rashford publicly demanded an investigation into the free school meals scandal, following conversations with Chartwell and the Prime Minister, he said.

“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 tweeted.

“It’s 2021. Our eyes are open. Now is the time for a full major review of the free school meal system.”

Schools in England are encouraged to work with caterers to provide food packages to families who would usually rely on free school meals. They are told to hand out vouchers where that is not possible.

But shocking photos posted by parents this week showed parcels of only small amounts of food at a low nutritional value. Some private companies like Chartwell were contracted by the Department for Education to provide the packages.

One mother said the food she received for her child, meant to last ten days over two weeks and replace £30 in supermarket vouchers, came to around £5 worth in total.

The Food Foundation made the urgent call “in light of recent developments”, and said ministers should consider permanently including children whose families have no recourse to public funds in those eligible for free school meals.

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Ministers should investigate the disadvantaged children “being excluded” from policies meant to support them, said the charity in a statement.

And it added any review of free school meals should draw on evidence from children and young people. Teachers and catering staff were also recommended as well as inequality experts.

The charity questioned whether the flat rate of £2.30 per meal per child is enough to stop pupils going hungry.

And it echoed calls for a cash-first approach like that used in Scotland to be extended throughout the UK. The Government was told to boost wages and benefits to help families afford the quality food they need. This would improve “choice and dignity,” the charity said.

The review findings should be debated in Parliament, published before the summer holidays and should feed into the next Spending Review, according to the charity, and should guide ministers’ action to tackle child poverty over the next five years as the country recovers from Covid-19.

Nearly a million children registered for free school meals for the first time in 2020. The charity wants schools to be better supported in making sure their pupils have all the food they need. Councils should also introduce mandatory monitoring of free school meals take-up and nutritional levels.

Universal free school meals should play a part in future considerations too, the Food Foundation said, in an effort to remove stigma experienced by children who rely on free food from school.

“The photos being shared on social media are completely unacceptable,” children’s minister Vicky Ford said.

“Chartwells has rightly apologised and admitted the parcel in question was not good enough.

“They will ensure schools affected are compensated. They will also provide additional food to the eligible child in line with our increased funding.”