Gavin Williamson 'disgusted' by 'unacceptable' school meals parcel

13 January 2021, 11:15 | Updated: 13 January 2021, 11:19

By Maddie Goodfellow

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said he felt "disgusted" when he saw images of "woefully inadequate" free school meal parcels that were shared online.

On Tuesday, Twitter user Roadside Mum shared an image, writing: "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."

She said the parcel had been issued by Chartwells, a private company contracted by the Department for Education, instead of £30 worth of vouchers.

Speaking at the Education Select Committee, Mr Williamson said: "When I saw that picture I was absolutely disgusted.

"As a dad myself I just thought how could a family in receipt of that really be expected to deliver five nutrition meals as is required. It's just not acceptable."

Roadside Mum said she estimated the cost of the food provided was £5.22 based on prices at Asda.

Several other parents have since come forward and shared images of food parcels they have received.

Chartwells, which is part of the Compass Group, responded to Roadside Mum saying they would investigate.

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

Speaking about the company, Mr Williamson said: "It's been made absolutely clear to Chartwells and to the whole sector that that sort of behaviour is just not right. It will not be tolerated. We will not live with that.

"And it's so important, there are clear standards that are set there that they need to deliver against. And if they do not deliver against them, actions will need to be taken."

Read more: James O'Brien comforts tearful mother who felt ashamed complaining about food parcels

Read more: James O'Brien's reaction to the 'absolute debacle' of free school meal parcels

Chartwells added in a statement: “We take our responsibility to provide children with access to nutritious food very seriously. We have worked hard to produce food hampers at incredibly short notice during these challenging times.

"Our hampers follow the DfE specifications and contain a variety of ingredients to support families in providing meals throughout the week. In the majority of instances, we have received positive feedback. 

“In this instance, the image on Twitter falls short of our hamper specification and we are keen to investigate with the relevant school so we can address any operational issues that may have arisen.”

Mr Williamson said the company had "apologised", but the government will "name and shame any contractors that are not delivering against the standards set".

On Tuesday, the 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."

Following the images being posted, politicians were quick to criticise the contents, with Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer tweeting: "The images appearing online of woefully inadequate free school meal parcels are a disgrace.

"Where is the money going?

"This needs sorting immediately so families don't go hungry through lockdown."

Other Labour MPs also took to social media to criticise the situation.

The party's deputy leader Angela Rayner said: "If the government is allowing companies to make money by providing cut price meals for hungry children we will fight for change. No child should be going hungry."

Shadow minister for children Tulip Siddiq wrote: "I’m furious about the pictures circulating of woeful food some of our schoolchildren are being given to survive on.

"It’s not acceptable and I’m meeting the Children’s Minister tomorrow and will raise directly. We must give our children the best healthy start in life."

Jess Phillips added: "Remember when Conservatives said if you give this money to families it ends up in "crack dens" I'll expect the same thing said about what the private company is spending the £25 quid on?"

Children's Minister Vicky Ford said on Tuesday she was "urgently" looking into the matter.

The Department for Education has also confirmed that school meal vouchers will be provided alongside food parcels "depending on local circumstances".

In guidance posted online, the DfE said: "This could include:

- Providing lunch parcels through the school catering team or food provider

- Providing vouchers for a local shop or supermarket

- Using the Department for Education (DfE)’s national voucher scheme, which will reopen on 18 January 2021."

Parents will be given up to £15 per eligible pupil, per week, where vouchers for local shops or supermarkets are being provided.

The scheme will be reinstated on January 18.