12 January 2021, The Tablet

Catholics condemn 'shocking' free school meals

Catholics condemn 'shocking' free school meals

A message of thanks to Manchester United's Marcus Rashford, last year, for his free school meals campaign.
Clive Brunskill/PA

Images of the meagre free school meal parcels being given to children experiencing food poverty are “shocking”, leading Catholic campaigners said today.

Photographs of the contents of the parcels, which are being distributed in place of supermarket vouchers, have been shared widely on Twitter. One example, of a parcel expected to last a family for 10 days, comprised a small number of basic items – sliced bread, bananas, a tin of beans and some pieces of fruit and vegetables – that amounted to around £5 worth of grocery shopping. The supermarket vouchers that had been distributed previously were worth £30.

In a joint statement today Caritas Westminster and the Westminster Justice and Peace Commission called on the Government to give families the option of receiving supermarket vouchers or cash, which they said was a more dignified way to support the most vulnerable. They also noted that many of the families experiencing the worst food poverty, such as asylum seekers with no recourse to public funds, are not eligible for any support with school meals.

“Throughout the pandemic increasing numbers of families have faced extremely challenging circumstances, with many losing income and having to support children at home whilst schools have been closed,” the statement said.

“Unfortunately, as schools have been forced to close again we are seeing the same problems of the first lockdown repeating themselves, with families struggling to access free school meal vouchers and being provided with low quality food parcels. Already the projects and schools we support have seen an increase in need with more families being referred for emergency support.”

Christine Allen, director of Cafod, said: “This is shockingly awful on so many levels. It’s also a rip off as this is £5 worth of food in place of a voucher for £30. Insult to injury.”

Both the Department of Education and the Children’s Minister, Vicky Ford, have said they will investigate the allegations. Chartwells, the private company that provided the food parcel that sparked revelations about the food provision, said in a message today that it, too, was investigating, adding “this does not reflect the specification of one of our hampers”.

@RoadsideMum tweeted, with the above picture, that was picked up and tweeted by Marcus Rashford among many others: “#FreeSchoolMeals bag for 10 days: 2 days jacket potato with beans 8 single cheese sandwiches 2 days carrots 3 days apples 2 days soreen 3 days frubes Spare pasta & tomato. Will need mayo for pasta salad. Issued instead of £30 vouchers. I could do more with £30 to be honest.”

Colette Joyce, the Co-ordinator of Westminster Justice and Peace, said today: “We have to ask as a society, who is benefiting from these food parcels – the recipients or the companies with the government contracts? It is not good enough. We have to ensure that when parents are struggling, every child has access to a proper meal of the same quality that you or I would choose for ourselves.”

Anna Gavurin, Caritas Food Collective Co-ordinator said: “We believe every child deserves to have access to fresh, nutritious food and every family should be able to access food in a dignified manner. At Caritas Westminster we have supported struggling families during the pandemic by running a supermarket voucher scheme that has so far distributed over £170,000 to more than 5000 people. This has enabled families to shop for themselves, with dignity and buy the items their families need most.

“This scheme has also helped parishes and schools to provide support for those who slip through the gaps and do not qualify for Free School Meals for certain reasons such as having no recourse to public funds. In the last week we have also been able to help schools support families who lost their jobs before Christmas and have not yet been given access to Free School Meal support.”

Anna continued: “These vouchers have provided a life line for many and do give choice to families, however increasing the cash available to struggling families is the most dignified solution. This offers families the ability to manage their budget more flexibly and keep on top of bills and other demands. It also allows them to shop in any retailer without stigma, enabling them to make savings and support the local economy.

“Direct financial support allows families to plan ahead and make the most efficient choices, rather than relying on food parcels. To call for this Caritas Westminster has joined with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and a coalition of charities to ask the Government to make permanent the £20 uplift in Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit, and to extend it to people on Employment Support Allowance, Income Support and Job Seekers’ Allowance.”

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