Opinion: Tories have failed young people

Sofía Masondo

Over the last few weeks on social media, there has been widespread outrage expressed over food parcels delivered to recipients of regular free school meals (FSM), to ensure that vulnerable young people can still eat during the third national lockdown. Previously, parents were given cash vouchers to be able to buy food, but some parts of the country switched to food parcels instead. Parents sharing photos of their parcels on platforms like Twitter have exposed the reality of the service provided by Chartwells, the same catering company that provides Marymount with its food three times every day. Photos feature meager provisions, with one parent on Twitter (@LMT1180) sharing the food delivered in money bags (including canned tuna that had been removed from the can) and a pathetic stub of carrot, a delivery that was meant to last for five days of food. Although Chartwells has apologised, it is shameful that the firm can stretch fees to feed private school children, but when paid for by the government to provide for some of the most vulnerable children in Britain, a country where one in five children live in food poverty and 2 in 5 children in poverty aren’t eligible for FSM, the most they can provide is what is pictured below, with packages that are meant to be worth £30 only containing £5 worth of food.

https://twitter.com/RoadsideMum/status/1348646428084760576?s=20

The parcels given by Chartwells to children eligible for FSM are in stark contrast with the food that we receive at Marymount, where we receive the day’s menu every day via email, featuring orzo and smoked mackerel salads, Thai red curry, or grilled chicken caesar salad. We often take the quality and sheer quantity of food at lunch for granted, but the truth is that compared to the vast majority of school children, we are privileged beyond what we can understand to have not only a mountain of food but also an incredible team of staff to cook it for us day in and day out, often without a word of thanks or appreciation from the students that eat it. Although meals are paid for with school fees, the difference between what the same amount of money can buy for private and state school children by the same company is vast. What message comes across when a company that is perfectly able to deliver private school children with more food than they can eat, says that they can only provide you with three tubes of yogurt, some fruit, bread and cheese slices for five days for £30? Morrisons offers a box with ingredients for five meals for a family of four for the same price. That can buy you:

Market Street British Minced Beef 12% Fat 500g
The Best Thick Pork Sausages 400g x 2
Pilgrims Choice Mature Cheddar 350g
Puff Pastry 375g
Trimmed Leeks 500g
Chestnut Mushrooms 250g
Loose Garlic
Baby Plum Tomatoes 250g
Maris Piper Potatoes 2.5kg
Brown Onions 1kg
Wonky Carrots 1kg
Salad Peppers
Red Kidney Beans 390g
Basil 16g
Parsley 11g
Thyme 16g
Courgettes 3 pack 240g
Spaghetti 500gk
Easy Cook Long Grain Rice 500g
Butter Beans In Water 400g
Chopped Tomatoes 400g
Vegetable Stock Cubes 12’s 120g
Chilli Powder 5g
Canned Reduced Fat Coconut Milk 400ml
Medium Curry Powder 90g
Bunched Coriander 100g

What does it tell us about how public schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas, are considered in this country by the government and by the companies that it commissions? While Marymount students are free to complain about our food (and do it often), students eligible for FSM are expected to be grateful of these offensive parcels. When they and their parents express their anger, they are called lazy and unappreciative. They’re told that if they don’t like it then they should provide for themselves, when their economic situation is often not in their control with many parents having lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Regardless of whether your school is state or independent, you should be treated with basic human dignity, something which is lacking in this disgrace of a FSM system and with Chartwells’ distribution. It is insulting to anyone receiving them and shows that the concern in this case is not the health of children, but the profit that they can make from hunger. 

Boris Johnson responded to the images of food parcels by calling them “disgraceful”, and placing blame on Chartwells and other distribution companies for the standard of parcels. However, as Labour leader Kier Starmer pointed out in the House of Commons, although it is certainly a disgrace, it is not only the companies that are at fault – Department of Education guidelines for an example parcel for five days’ food are almost the same to what those images depict, with the exception of three items. The Prime Minister cannot claim to care about the hungry children of this country while also refusing to take responsibility for the deeply flawed and insufficient free school meals system. A video on his Twitter account was accompanied by the caption saying that the government would do “everything” they could do to “ensure no child goes hungry”. This is the same Tory government that was forced to U-turn twice on its decision to provide free school meals during a massive recession and mass unemployment, and were forced to do so by no less than Marcus Rashford, a footballer who saw a need from experience with hunger and took matters into his own hands. 

https://twitter.com/BorisJohnson/status/1349356578047217665?s=20

This goverment has never cared about food poverty or working-class young people, and never would have taken this decision unless Rashford had begun his campaign and garnered so much public support. However, it is not a coincidence that Chartwells, part of Compass Group, is one of the companies contracted to supply the emergency packages. Paul Walsh, the group’s former chairman, is a Conservative Party donor, was part of David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group and and in the past has encouraged voters to vote Tory. It is not enough to have wholly inadequate guidelines for food packages, but this government must also profit off of the desperation of low-income families during a crisis through their continued cronyism and, as Jack Monroe, anti-poverty campaigner and author (@bootstrapcook on Twitter) said, corruption. If the food in the parcel was worth £5, then where has the other £25 gone? In the words of @Roadsidemum, the message received to low-income children is this: “your future is only interesting to us in terms of how much we can leach out of it. Your only value to us is what percentage of public money can we turn into private money”. 

Finally, after widespread condemnation the voucher scheme has been reinstated in many places in favour of the parcel system. However, we should not forget the government’s treatment of low income families in some of the most difficult times Britain has faced in recent years. Having just surpassed 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, it is clear that, as disadvantaged areas are more likely to be harder affected by COVID, the pandemic is only widening the gap between rich and poor. It is disgusting, but ultimately not surprising, that this is how we are treating people in our country with less. It has always been so with a Conservative government and it will continue to be so as long as austerity and welfare cuts continue. Although Boris loves to brag about the UK’s success in its vaccination programme, when it comes time to look back on this government and think of its legacy, we must remember its huge failures as well.