Opinion

What it's like to accidentally start a movement

Louisa Britain, whose photo of frugal free school meals packages caused uproar online, details how her life has been overturned by the attention and what could come next.

A small amount of food laid out after being delivered to replace free school meals for two weeks for a child

The items in a food parcel designed to replace £30 in supermarket vouchers. Image: @RoadsideMum

It’s a surreal experience to watch the world’s press crash into your life, with all their various journalistic guiles, competing in your inbox for attention.

“Where do you live? Where do your children go to school? What is your name?,” one interrogates. “Oh hi! Really sorry – you don’t like all these journalists do you?” another sympathises. Every human communication style – from the matey and casual, to the brash and, frankly, scary – were, in the space of a few hours, silently shouting over each other in the direct messages folder of a social media site. All desperate to be the first to get my attention.

I declined some of the largest global news outlets and TV stations. I ignored sometimes as many as five or six reporters from the same publication, from various online news sites for individual towns, to international news giants. I started to count them. I got to 123 journalists trying to talk to me, lost my place, and scrolled up to see a couple of dozen more uncounted and many fresh approaches. I have since turned the messages off.

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You may imagine that I had done something amazing, or diabolical. Alas, nothing so dramatic. I had posted on social media a photo of a woefully inadequate food parcel, given to me in place of the free school meals voucher that my children qualify for. The pitiful selection included a tiny tomato, three now-infamous Frubes and some unreasonably long-life bread, set against the backdrop of my cheap, beige living room carpet.

The meagre offerings in the bag were handed out at school, to replace two weekly Free School Meals vouchers that I had been receiving prior to January, each priced at £15. I calculated the contents could have been purchased in Asda for £5.22. It raised the question in my mind – where did the other £24.78 go?

Chartwells, a school caterer and the organisation that packed the parcel, is a private company within the Compass Group. Compass, who are listed on the stock exchange and appear in the FTSE 100, were reported to have revenues of £20.2bn for the year ending September 2020.

Within hours of sharing the image on Monday afternoon, I was joined in my call for more provision and less profiteering, by some brilliant allies – most notably anti-poverty campaigner and cookery writer Jack Monroe, and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford.

Before long Chartwells issued damage limitation, and shortly after that, promises of change. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister and Labour leader Keir Starmer shared passionate exchanges on the subject at PMQs. A couple of hours after that, I was speaking on the phone to Chartwells’ managing director about their current failings and future plans, and a little while later, to top-level opposition politicians, on policy. As I write this, it’s only Wednesday night.

The story isn’t over. More is yet to do. 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. Equally, the metaphorical public purse to which everyone, even myself, is obligated to contribute should not be leaking money at a rate of six times greater than the value of its achievement. What can be done?

I suppose the first thing I would be asking for, if the Prime Minister were sat across from me now, would be to make a commitment to supporting all of the country’s more vulnerable children, throughout the duration of the pandemic and any recession following. We could, and I believe should, end this rolling cycle of promising support for a short time, then seeking to end it, over and over. Let’s see what morning brings first. A whole night is a long, long time just lately.

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