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You cannot feed poor children decently with a profit-driven approach

It’s possible to keep deprived children well-nourished during lockdown. But the meagre food parcels delivered to struggling families are nowhere near sufficient

By Rachel Sylvester  

Credit: @RoadsideMum

A single tin of baked beans, two potatoes, five pieces of fruit, a loaf of bread, two carrots, a handful of pasta, some cheese slices, one tomato, two pieces of malt loaf and three tubes of yoghurt. This was the sum total of the ingredients contained in a food parcel handed out to feed children lunch for two weeks, according to Twitter user @RoadsideMum. Shockingly, she put the value of these goods at little more than £5, when the boxes given to those on free school meals are supposed to be worth over £30. The provider disputes the details but campaigners suggest this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Pupils who may already be struggling with homeschooling during lockdown will go hungry if they have to rely on this paltry hamper of goods. As Max Davie, Officer for Health Improvement at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, pointed out, this is not nutritionally sufficient, nor is it in keeping with the government’s commitment to promote healthy eating. It is also a rip-off by the company that provided the box.

Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer and food poverty campaigner who last year forced the government into two U-turns on free school meals, has already taken up the cause. This morning he tweeted that he had a “good conversation with the Prime Minister” about the hampers. “He has assured me that he is committed to correcting the issue with the hampers and that a full review of the supply chain is taking place,” the footballer said. “He agrees that images of hampers being shared on Twitter are unacceptable.” Vicky Ford, the Children’s Minister, has promised to look into the matter “urgently” and, if necessary, provide children with extra food. Chartwells, one of the companies providing the parcels, blamed “operational issues” for the quality of some of its boxes.

But, as Labour has pointed out, the contents of the hampers that were pictured on Twitter are not all that different from the government guidance. The truth is there is a structural problem with the way food is being distributed to poor children who are not in school during the pandemic. Vouchers may not always be the best option: at one school in Hackney, for example, it takes two bus rides to get to the nearest shop where they can be used. But the margins are so small that whatever form the assistance takes, the profit motive will simply never deliver the right result.

The government normally pays £2.30 for each school meal that it funds. During the lockdown schools are receiving £15.20 a week for vouchers or hampers per pupil. Henry Dimbleby, author of the government’s National Food Strategy and a non-executive director at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, argues that it is still increasingly difficult for the private sector to manage.

“What we are seeing is a microcosm of what goes on in schools every day,” he told me. “There has been a great improvement but there’s still a lot of school food that isn’t great. It’s a low margin, so that requires a huge amount of dedication, pride and passion to do well. Increasingly I think it’s not suited to big companies. The easy way to make profit is to do it in bulk, with not very good food.”

As a parent with children in a state primary in Hackney, Dimbleby brought in a chef from Ottolenghi who transformed the school meals. Instead of turkey twirlers and baked beans, pupils were soon eating quinoa and roasted butternut squash. There was home-made focaccia and salad gardens on the lunch tables, with fake soil made of black sesame and scissors for children to cut the leaves. Battered fish was gradually replaced with fish roasted in tomato sauce. Children loved it and the fund-raising dinners for the parents sold out within hours.

Now Dimbleby’s charity, Chefs in Schools, is providing food hampers for 30 schools and showing the Department for Education how it should be done. A full box of basic items, including fruit and vegetables, pasta, rice, bread, eggs and milk is topped up by meals made by chefs who have been furloughed or work at local restaurants that are shut.

Each hamper (delivered weekly so the goods are fresh) contains four meals. Recent examples have included Jamaican stew, peas with dumplings, pumpkin and chickpea stew cooked in yoghurt, pasta with tomato and pepper sauce, and baked mushroom and lentil rice. The chefs who lent support have come from restaurants including Hawksmoor, Wahaca and the Ottolenghi group as well as smaller independents including The Shed in Notting Hill.

There is also support from other charities including FareShare, which takes food that would otherwise be wasted and redistributes it to people who need it. In some cases, boxes have contained goods worth more than £40 and the food is wholesome as well as filling.

Naomi Duncan, the Chief Executive of Chefs in Schools, is “shocked and disappointed” by the images of food boxes that had been given to some families. “Free school meals exist as a provision partly to tackle hunger, but that should never mean just providing any old empty carbohydrate, bruised fruit or knock-off tin of beans and assuming that responsibility is fulfilled,” she says. “This crisis won’t last forever, but the way we all respond to it will linger on longer in the memory.”

It is possible to provide good food cheaply to families who need it, even during a pandemic. It just requires a little bit of love and commitment rather than pure interest in profit.

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