LONDON – The food package, spread out on a blanket, contained a can of beans, a selection of fruits, vegetables, snacks and sliced bread and cheese – provisions from a government program that gives low-income students free lunch.
But as images of the packages delivered to students at home as lockdowns have closed schools across the UK, circulating on social media this week, the rounds were condemned by parents and anti-hunger activists like football star Marcus Rashford.
Portions were modest, raising concerns about whether children were getting enough nutrition during the coronavirus pandemic, and the government had paid too much for them, critics said.
Chartwells, a contractor responsible for delivering the packed lunch circulated on Twitter, said Tuesday that the image contained enough for five days of school lunch, not 10, and that the fee for it, including distribution costs, totaled about $ 14.
But that was not enough to reduce the outcry, and on Wednesday the government said it would reintroduce coupon programs next week that would allow parents to buy meals themselves.
Under the program, schools receiving funding to offer lunch to lower-income students obtained incentives if they sent packed lunches to their homes. According to the Department of Education’s website, food should be used to prepare “healthy lunches” and accommodate students with “special diets.”
The mother, whose photo went viral, said she welcomed the news of the turnaround. “Most people can get a lot more mileage out of coupons than anything else put in their bags and boxes,” the woman, identified only as Lisa, told Leading Britain’s Conversation radio station.
On Monday, Chartwells said it would reimburse the cost “where our packed lunches had not met our usual high standards” and would “apologize to everyone affected.” A free breakfast would be included in packages sent from January 25, they added.
Sir. Rashford, who plays for Manchester United and has been a driving force behind free meals during the pandemic, called the packages “unacceptable” and said Prime Minister Boris Johnson had promised him a “full review of the supply chain.”
“These food packages do not meet the standards we have set and we have made it clear to the company involved that this is shameful,” Johnson said on Twitter.
“The photos shared on social media last night and today are completely unacceptable and do not reflect the high standard of free school meals we expect to be sent to children,” said Vicky Ford, Minister for Children and Families.
But some critics accused the government of shifting the blame to contractors, saying it was a sign of wider struggles as marginalized people faced Britain deep inside another deadlock.
“It’s really shocking that this crisis is making a profit,” said Kath Dalmeny, CEO of Sustain, a food and agriculture charity. She added that there was a lack of transparency about how large companies won contracts and that the government had not sufficiently recognized that low-income families would struggle to get food during the shutdown.
The free meals program was offered to students from households that received government benefits, including those earning less than £ 7,400 a year after tax.
But families earning above this threshold are also struggling to put food on the table, Ms. Dalmeny said.
“There is a deep political prejudice among our government against giving people money – even in a pandemic,” she added. “Unfortunately, it’s the kids who end up suffering.”
The incident was part of a pattern of private companies getting public contracts that shrimped on quality to maximize profits, according to The Good Law Project, a watchdog. Sir. The Johnson government has awarded billions of dollars worth of pandemic-related contracts to companies with political connections, no relevant experience and controversy stories, and often quickly tracked them ahead of competitors.
“There is a culture of central government that is just not interested in providing high quality services to the people,” said Jolyon Maugham, the group’s director, adding that the country needed more ways to seek accountability and transparency.
About 1.4 million children claimed free school meals in the 2019-2020 school year, according to government figures.
Of the photographs, Dalmeny said they went viral because they spoke to people’s hearts. “If you imagine feeding a baby with it week after week.”