Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford and a group of celebrity chefs and campaigners are calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to urgently review the government’s free school meals policy.
The group, including TV chefs Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, as well as actress Dame Emma Thompson, have written to Mr Johnson asking him to ‘fix’ the policy long-term.
In the letter, backed by more than over 40 NGOs, charities and education leaders, the group welcome the ‘robustness’ of the PM’s ‘swift response’ to reports of inadequate free school meal food parcels being provided by private companies.
However, they said that following a series of problems that have arisen, including over school food vouchers, holiday provision and food parcels since the start of the pandemic, now is the right moment to ‘step back and review the policy in more depth’.
‘The signatories to this letter urge the Government to conduct an urgent comprehensive review into Free School Meal policy across the UK to provide recommendations for the next Spending Review,’ they write.
‘This would allow the Government to provide strong national leadership on children’s food so that our nation’s most disadvantaged children and their families, already disproportionately impacted by Covid- 19, don’t continue to bear the brunt.’
The group notes how in the first lockdown, from March to August 2020, 2.3 million children experienced food insecurity and during the 2020 summer holidays 850,000 children reported that they or their families visited a food bank. They stress that free school meals are ‘a very important part of the safety net that protects children from impoverished families from hunger and poor nutrition’.
In the letter, organised by the Food Foundation charity, the group says they believe the review should be debated in Parliament and published before the 2021 summer holidays.
They stress that the process requires collaboration from politicians in all the devolved nations with responsibility for school food in their regions and must involve close consultation with children and young people, as well as teachers, charities, NGOs, frontline catering staff and school meals service providers.
The group pledge their full support to the review process, insisting that it should draw on evidence of food insecurity and health inequalities. They recommend that the review should look at the current eligibility thresholds for free school meals and the impact of Covid-19 on children in low-income families. They say it is important to ensure that existing school food programmes should eliminate experiences of stigma for the poorest students.
The group also say the review should consider whether the current allowance is adequate and how schools can be supported to deliver the best quality meals.
The group note that this review would provide the Government with the opportunity to ‘future-proof’ its policy on school food and to carefully consider how best to support low-income children and families in the aftermath of the pandemic.
‘It would also demonstrate the Government’s commitment to tackling child food poverty in the longer term and be a significant step towards a comprehensive long-term plan,’ they say.
‘School food is essential in supporting the health and learning of our most disadvantaged children. Now, at a time when children have missed months of in-school learning and the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of our health, this is a vital next step.’
The group’s call comes after images of poor-quality food parcels delivered by Chartwells to children entitled to free school meals went viral on social media.
The parcels were delivered in place of the £30 food voucher, which was previously provided by the government to support struggling families during lockdown.
However, following the backlash, Eduation Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that parents will be able to use the free school meals voucher scheme from Monday 18th January.
The Prime Minister also condemned the food parcels, telling MPs: “It is a scandal and a disgrace that some companies are trying to get away with the provision they are offering.”
Meanwhile, Rashford revealed that he had spoken with Mr Johnson, who assured him that he is committed to correcting the issue.
‘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,’ the footballer tweeted.
The PM responded to Rashford’s tweet, saying: ‘I totally agree with you @MarcusRashford, these food parcels do not meet the standards we set out and we have made it clear to the company involved that this is disgraceful. The company concerned has rightly apologised and agreed to reimburse those affected.’
Rashford also revealed the he had spoken with Mr Johnson about the ways to course correct on the voucher scheme.
‘If families can’t access food consistently likelihood is they do not have access to a printer to print the vouchers at home. @10DowningStreet agreed to look into this,’ he tweeted.
Picture: Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.