The government has been forced into a U-turn over free school meal provision during lockdown, and it has emerged that its guidance on what should be in food parcels is strikingly similar to images circulating on social media that the prime minister described as “unacceptable”.
Guidance written by the Department for Education suggests “general principles for putting together” parcels, and according to Labour it bears close resemblance to images seen on social media, including one loaf of bread, two potatoes, a tin of beans, three yoghurts and a bag of pasta.
Key items missing from pictures of food parcels compared with what was recommended by the government were two “tins of meat”, a litre of milk and a tin of sweetcorn, which Labour said it had calculated at 47p of food a day. Labour calculated, using prices from Tesco, that the government’s recommendations for a weekly food parcel would cost just over £7.
Reading from the guidance at prime minister’s questions, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, asked the prime minister if it sounded “familiar”?
“That’s the images, prime minister, that you just called disgraceful,” he said. “The only difference I can see in this list and what the prime minister described as disgraceful is a tin of sweetcorn, a packet of ham and a bottle of milk. So he blames others, but this is on his watch. The truth is, families come last under this government, whether it’s exams, free school meals or childcare.”
A senior Tory source said there was a clear difference between the government recommendations and the boxes on social media, including meat, milk and eggs, and said the parcel highlighted on Tuesday “did not nearly meet the DfE requirements”.
But the source said: “If Sir Keir thinks you can buy that for 50p he really is out of touch.”
Labour’s attack came as the government abandoned guidance drawn up just five days ago in favour of giving schools more freedom to opt for food vouchers, either through local providers or the government’s national scheme, which reopens next week.
Guidance issued last Friday “strongly encouraged” schools to adopt a “food parcel first approach”. It insisted this should be the approach at schools where kitchens were open, adding there were “significant benefits” to offering food parcels, including “the confidence that a nutritious and varied range of food is being provided”.
New guidance issued on Wednesday morning, however, removes all mention of a “food parcel first approach” and says “schools have the freedom to decide on the best approach for their pupils”, including lunch parcels, local vouchers or the national voucher scheme.
While the guidance still insists that food parcel provision will give confidence that meals will be nutritious and varied, its previous insistence that a significant benefit of food parcels would be “the continuation of financial support to school caterers” has been removed.
There is growing clamour among campaigners for the government to urgently conduct a root-and-branch review of the entire school food system
Where parents have complained to the school about the inadequate standard of the food parcels, schools will be able to claim compensation retrospectively in the form of a food voucher for use in local shops.
The government confirmed that the French-owned company Edenred would once again deliver the scheme, despite widespread criticism of long delays and delivery problems when the service launched last year.
Following complaints from parents and headteachers, a report by the National Audit Office found the government had signed contracts worth up to £425m with Edenred, even though there was “limited evidence” of its capacity to deliver.
A lack of IT capacity meant the system “buckled under the pressure”, but performance improved following DfE intervention.
The new £15-per-child weekly voucher scheme will be available from next Monday.
The cook, food writer and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe welcomed the apparent U-turn on Twitter, where she posted: “NATIONAL FREE SCHOOL MEAL VOUCHER SCHEME IS COMING BACK NEXT WEEK! We did it!!! THANKYOU!!!!”
Marcus Rashford also welcomed progress, after he told his Twitter followers that he had talked to the prime minister, who he said had promised a review of the supply chain for food hampers for children on free school meals, following public outrage over photographs on social media of substandard parcels.
“Just had a good conversation with the prime minister. He has assured me that he is committed to correcting the issue with the food hampers and that a full review of the supply chain is taking place. He agrees that images of hampers being shared on Twitter are unacceptable.”
As ministers carried out the fourth major U-turn on school food in less than a year, there was growing clamour among campaigners for the government to urgently conduct a root-and-branch review of the entire school food system, including the provision of free school meals.
Prof Greta Defeyter, a school food expert from Northumbria University, tweeted: “We need a full review of the entire school meal system, all food served in schools, and how this relates to wider social policies. Research shows that poorer children experience food insecurity and have poorer health, social and educational outcomes.”
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, giving evidence to the Commons education committee, said he was “absolutely disgusted” by food parcels pictured on social media. “As a dad myself, I thought: how could a family in receipt of that really be expected to deliver five nutritious meals as required? It’s just not acceptable.”
Williamson said it had been made clear to the supplier Chartwells, which was responsible for one of the parcels highlighted on social media, as well as the whole school catering sector that such parcels were not acceptable. “There are clear standards that they need to deliver against, and if they do not deliver against them actions will have to be taken.”