In England, as of 2020, 17.3% of the total population of school pupils qualified for a free lunch each day at school. The school lunch system is not perfect, but it at least aims to make sure that the poorest children in society (those who live in households under a certain income threshold) get at least one good meal each day, so they can learn and grow.
When the Covid-19 crisis hit last year and the country went into lockdown, schools were also closed. Within hours, the children who counted on lunch as their one balanced weekday meal were thrown into food insecurity and hunger. Thankfully, the Government did take swift action to address this, and school meals were replaced straight away with a £15 supermarket voucher (about $20), per child, per week.
These vouchers were a lifeline for families. With careful planning, a £15 voucher can stretch not only to lunch food for a week but also provide some extras to supplement the whole family’s meals. In families with more than one child, the vouchers formed a huge part of the weekly food budget.
In the summer, after the footballer Marcus Rashford got involved, the voucher scheme was extended once more so that it would cover school holidays too. This was heartening. Although child food poverty is undoubtedly shameful, and its current levels are appalling, at least something was being done for the hungry children at a granular level.
Fast forward, though, to the new year of 2021. It kicked off with another lockdown and another nationwide school closure. This time, rather than issuing vouchers to buy food, the Government in their infinite wisdom decided to use a private catering company — Chartwells — to supply “food hampers” to qualifying children instead. (Chartwells, by the way, donate a lot of money to the Conservative Party. You can fill in the blanks here).
The first of the hampers were issued last Monday. And this is what was in them. This, remember, is supposed to be full lunches for a full week:
No way did the cost of that meagre selection of foodstuffs add up to £15. Some quick calculations showed that for every £15 paid by the Local Authority to Chartwells, children were being delivered just £3 worth of food. The rest of the money? Pocketed, of course, by Chartwells. They were laughing all the way to the bank and muttering about “packaging and distribution costs” as they went.
The company was openly and shamelessly profiting from taxpayers’ money and at the same time, quite literally taking it from the mouths of the hungriest children in society, kids who really needed that food, at the coldest time of year.
Within hours of photos like this one being uploaded, social media channels were melting under the heat of everyone’s outrage. How dare the Government, during a pandemic when funds are tighter than they’ve ever been, make the decision to so blatantly steal food from children’s mouths? How dare Chartwells, the company responsible, try to get away with such a scandal? Did they perhaps assume that the parents entitled to free meals would be too ashamed to admit to it, or to post photographs of what they were given? Every news channel and social media feed pulsed with outrage.
Of course, the usual poverty-shaming suspects crawled out from under their rocks to weigh in on the debate. “It’s only their lunch, it’s not all their meals,” blustered Tory MP Pauline Latham, ignoring the well-known fact that for many children, their free daily meal is the only full meal they will get. But in general, the reaction of journalists, MPs, and celebrities was the same as the reaction of the public: everyone was absolutely appalled. And everyone took to social media to say so.
This unignorable social media storm, together with more involvement from the hero that is Marcus Rashford, led swiftly to this morning’s news that from Monday, the pathetic and measly Chartwells “hampers” are to be replaced once more with meal vouchers that can be spent on food chosen by parents.
These vouchers are issued by the school for each pupil and then converted, through a government portal, into gift cards which can be spent at local supermarkets. (It’s a scheme that worked perfectly well in the previous lockdown and should not have been meddled with).
This rapid government U-turn feels like a much-needed win, in a time when any sort of wins are thing on the ground. It’s a win not just for parents or for the children who will benefit from the food and not just for the celebrities who brought the scandal to the government’s attention; it’s a win for every person who tweeted their horror, or shared an Instagram post or created a Facebook status to urge their friends to write to their local MP.
It’s very easy, especially in a pandemic that sees us confined to our houses, to feel utterly powerless in the face of a government that apparently makes bad decision after bad decision every single day. It’s easy to forget that we live supposedly in a democracy, where the “will of the people” is supposed to count for something. Because it often feels like it counts for absolutely nothing.
Success stories like this week’s, where a nation’s horror ended up bringing the tangible benefit of more food to the poorest families (who have been arguably hit hardest by Covid-19 related poverty), are a small but vitally necessary reminder that perhaps we do have some power after all.