When I heard which company was behind the hugely inadequate food parcels provided to vulnerable children as free school meals, I felt motivated to write about it. I was never a recipient of free school meals and cannot be an authority on food poverty as I have never experienced it. However, Chartwells Independent provided catering for my school and the first-hand experience I have of the company providing high-quality meals to students highlights the cruelty of their failure to meet the needs of all children today. My school meals consisted of at least three main options (meat and vegetarian), a selection of carbohydrates and plenty of vegetables, a massive contrast with food parcels of battered fruit, a single loaf of bread and a few cheese slices, supposed to last a child ten days.
It is not these children’s responsibility to raise awareness of their unfair treatment. The hugely different experience of their more privileged peers with the same company necessitates an interrogation of its practices and the motivations behind them. If we could have canapes at careers evenings, it does not now seem an unreasonable ask that parcels supposedly valued at £30 actually contain £30 worth of food. A company with a revenue of £24.878 billion in 2019 can afford to give a child a proper meal.
Much has been made in the media of Chartwells Independent’s provision of luxuries such as patisseries and gingerbread houses to certain private schools, but the real problem is not these extravagances. Chartwells Independent’s offering always had sufficient nutritional value to enable us to engage with our afternoon lessons, whereas the parcels shown online fall short, neither meeting the energy requirements for a child or providing a balanced diet. Considering that a free school meal is often the only hot meal a child receiving it will eat per day, this is particularly concerning.
There is a direct link between malnutrition and reduced educational attainment. This goes further than a company messing up or an unconcerned government; it has the potential to blight futures. Hungry children find it harder to focus in lessons, a problem which will be exacerbated by the challenges to focus presented by lessons taking place online especially considering the delays and failings in delivering devices to facilitate remote learning for children in state schools.
It is not unreasonable to question whether there is a link between better meal provision for independent school students and their dominance of elite higher education institutions. Attendees of independent schools are often advantaged in their applications by other factors including a wider variety of subjects available, more individual attention from teachers, and more encouragement and preparation for application to elite universities. It has been known for years that disadvantaged students face many more barriers to both application and admission to top-ranking universities; without even the basis of sufficient meals these obstacles can often prove insurmountable.
The stark contrast between the wide choice of full, nutritious meals offered every lunchtime in private schools and the battered fruit and potatoes of the packages offered to struggling families reveals more than a company’s single-minded focus on the more profitable aspect of its business model. It shows a lack of both knowledge and compassion by both Chartwells and the government, whose guidelines for what a FSM package should contain do not vastly differ from what Chartwells provided.
A government that claims to want to ‘level up’ the country should not permit sabotage of the children which are this country’s future. The mother who received the widely shared package calculated that its contents were worth only £5, and they certainly did not provide the energy requirements for her child to take full advantage of their education.
Government outsourcing to expensive private companies which resoundingly fail to provide the required service seems to be a theme of this pandemic – you only have to look at Test & Trace. These children are the victims of corporate greed and of a government insufficiently interested in the plight of the poorest to acknowledge that some bread and some carrots is not enough for them to succeed.
Nothing I’ve said here is new, and the voices which should be amplified on the topic of food poverty are those who have experienced it. But the chasm between the experience I had and what children are now experiencing of the service that the same company provides is frankly unacceptable. The difference between the provision for independent schools and the provision for hungry children should be highlighted, so that Chartwells’ prioritisation of profit over people does not go unnoticed.
Some charities relevant to these issues are:
- School meal provision: Magic Breakfast
- Business2Schools: https://business2schools.com/donate
- LetsLocalise: https://www.letslocalise.co.uk
- BBC, ‘Give a Laptop’: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5SqHJMTKZx5sYhlltXJvB1Q/give-a-laptop