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Posted on 13th January 2021

Free School Meal parcels

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No child should be served substandard food at any time of day or on any day of the week. That this has been happening to poorer children at the taxpayer’s expense is appalling.

The Department for Education did react strongly by raising this injustice with the caterers yesterday afternoon, but we need a much more proactive stance to prevent it happening again.

The Department needs immediately to remind all schools that where there are concerns about the parcels, they are well within their rights to put in place local voucher schemes or sign up to the national scheme which is about to be reintroduced. And clearly we need tighter enforcement of the high standards the Department has set for the parcels.

There are many schools, of course, where families will be happy with the existing arrangements, and they should be allowed to keep them in place. In some cases, the delivery of parcels enables schools to carry out vital safeguarding duties and to maintain their connection with children and families. Likewise, we shouldn’t forget that there is a small army of mainly low-paid workers having to prepare large numbers of parcels in the middle of a pandemic, whose jobs rely on this programme and who are doing all they can to make this work.

But there is a bigger issue in play here. Where is the money – £15 per week, per child – going? Who is taking what sized cut at each stage of the process?

Feeding Britain has been seeking answers to this question for the past 18 months. In a joint paper with Professor Greta Defeyter, we found that £88 million was disappearing annually from free school meal cards, because it can’t be rolled over by poorer children. Neither the Department nor the National Audit Office were able to track down where that money went, and it appears the same thing is happening now with the parcels.

Aside from reinvesting this money elsewhere in raising family benefit levels, there are two immediate options available to the Department: seriously empower schools to take up the option that works for their pupils; and enlist the NAO’s help in finding out how the money is spent so that children and taxpayers alike can receive greater value from these contracts.