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Parents' heartbreak over 'scant' food parcels replacing school meals

Parents in Peterborough say they have been receiving ‘inadequate’ food parcels for their children in place of a free school meal. 
Parents have been sharing images on social media of the inadequate food parcels they have received in place of free school meals

This comes as the third lockdown was enforced from January 5, which included closure of schools except for key workers’ children. 

Parents whose children are eligible for school meals, have been sharing messages and pictures on social media about the food hampers sent out for their children. Many have expressed their disappointment over the lack of quality and quantity in the package that is expected to last a week. 

Images circulating show hampers which contain a small ziplock of pasta, cheese slices, three apples, two carrots and two potatoes, two bananas, a loaf of whole meal bread and a tin of baked beans- all this to feed a child for a week. Some parents even said they received end of date products including bread and yogurt. 

It was initially reported that have apparently cost the government £30 of the taxpayer’s money to put together, which people have called ‘unacceptable’.

Nationally, some of these hampers are being provided by education food service provider Chartwells, who have responded to these claims and said they would investigate. 

They said: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, this does not reflect the specification of one of our hampers."

A Chartwells spokesperson later said: "For clarity this shows five days of free school lunches (not 10 days) and the charge for food, packing and distribution was actually £10.50 and not £30 as suggested.

"However, in our efforts to provide thousands of food parcels a week at extremely short notice we are very sorry the quantity has fallen short in this instance."

Some parents have received negative comments and have been called ‘ungrateful’ for expressing their anger over the hampers, although they responded to say they are highlighting the profits these third-party companies are making. 

One Peterborough mum shared her experience and said: “I am a single mum on Universal Credit, and have a four-year-old kid. It has been quite challenging with the home schooling and maintaining household chores, with not being able to see family and friends it's definitely made a dent on my mental health.  

“The support bubble is a good idea but is tough to choose one household to bubble up with. The only support I can get is through video calls and messages so they can make sure we're all OK and staying safe. 

“The food hampers from the school are OK but could be much better if we were given the vouchers instead as we can get much more food that can last longer and we will know that my son will eat the food.  

“They are definitely disappointing and heart-breaking. First lockdown I received vouchers and then in the holidays got a lovely hamper. But this time it was just disappointing. 

“The hampers are a good idea if it's the same value of the vouchers as little bits in ziplocks aren't good idea, as we don't know how they've handled the food to put in them ziplocks and with the pandemic you have to be more careful. With pasta you can get a small pack for under £1 which we can get with vouchers if they don't want to do it. 

“I received these on Monday, January 11 with the bread and yoghurt both with an end date of January 12. And this is to last my son a week.”  

Talking about the home-schooling struggles, the mum added: “I am home school teaching my son. Yes, it's stressful as there is no help when I don't fully understand the work that's been given, they have just leant us a laptop for him to do the work but they are sending a full day's worth of work which is a lot, and the app doesn't always work when we have to upload their work as proof that they're doing it.  

“My experience during the pandemic has been tough but it has been tough for everyone, but certainly teaches you to be more kind and thankful to people and help out when you can, if it wasn't for my family and friends I would definitely struggle mentally and financially, they've helped me so much.” 
Some schools in Peterborough have stuck to the traditional free school meal vouchers for their students. 

Queen Katherine Academy in Peterborough tweeted to say: “If you think you are eligible for Free School meals, you can apply online. We are currently sending all eligible parents a weekly £15 voucher whilst the school is closed. The list of eligibility criteria can be found on the website.” 

Last week, following the announcement of school closures, Peterborough City Council sent out this statement to families and said: “We understand that families continue to live in uncertain times and many are facing changes to their financial circumstances as a result. 
"If you have not previously applied for Free School Meals, or your name has recently changed and now feel you may be eligible, please visit here to see if you meet the criteria and to apply online.  
“If you have any queries in relation to free school meals entitlement please contact our Education Welfare Benefits Team on or telephone them on 01223 703200 If you are currently in receipt of free school meals, your school will be in contact to advise what provision is being offered to you during this period of school closures.” 

Meanwhile, the Government has promised to investigate the “woefully inadequate” free school meal parcels sent to families. 

Downing Street has said the contents of some free school meal food parcels sent to families is “completely unacceptable” and that the Government is urgently looking into the issue.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “We’re aware of those images circulating on social media, and it is clear that the contents of those food parcels are completely unacceptable.

“The Department for Education is looking into this urgently and the Minister for Children, Vicky Ford, is speaking to the company responsible and they will be making it clear that boxes like this should not be given to families.”

The spokesman said the national free school meals voucher scheme would shortly be reopened.

Children’s Minister Vicky Ford said she would be “urgently” looking into the matter after one mother posted an image of a £30 parcel which was estimated to contain just over £5 worth of food. 

After announcing her plans to investigate, Ms Ford also defended the use of parcels instead of vouchers for families in need. 

She tweeted: “One of the reasons why some schools have used food parcels rather than vouchers is that it helps keep them in touch with families. 

“Very sadly during the pandemic there has been an increase in risk to some children. Do calll @NSPCC If you are concerned about a child.” 

The Department for Education wrote on Twitter: “We have clear guidelines and standards for food parcels, which we expect to be followed. 

English footballer, Marcus Rashford, who started the ‘free school meals campaign during summer, also tweeted about the packages with images and wrote: “3 days of food for 1 family… Just not good enough. 

“Then imagine we expect the children to engage in learning from home. 

“Not to mention the parents who, at times, have to teach them who probably haven’t eaten at all so their children can… We MUST do better.” 

Rashford went on to ask why independent businesses which “struggled their way through 2020” cannot be mobilised to support distribution of food packages and said it was “unacceptable” that children should go hungry due to poor communication and a lack of transparency. 

He also said that Chartwells had clarified that “Chartwells supply FSM when schools are operational. Chartwells is not the exclusive supplier of FSM across the UK. Chartwells have asked to make it clear that the picture in circulation that features the pepper is not one of their hampers”. 

NB this story has been updated to include Chartwells' later statement