Lewes parents outraged over free school meals scandal – Chartwells issues apology

Lewes parents were up in arms this week over the free school meals scandal which went viral online.

Friday, 15th January 2021, 11:30 am
Updated Friday, 15th January 2021, 11:52 am

It all started when a mother shared a photo on Twitter of her first weekly food parcel for her two children on Tuesday.

The bag of contents, intended to last two weeks and providing ten school lunches per child, contained a loaf of bread, two potatoes, one tin of beans, cheese slices, a bag of pasta, three portions of yoghurt, two carrots, three apples, two slices of malt loaf, and a single tomato.

It was charged to the Government at £30 by the private company, Chartwells, which supplied the food.

The Chartwells lunch bag (left) and a comparative lunch bag purchased from Aldi

But the mother, who uses the online name Roadside Mum, calculated the value of the items to be just £5.

Her tweet was shared by Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford who forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to make a u-turn on providing food vouchers for some of the country’s poorest families back in November.

Ariane Plumley, a mother of two children at Priory School, was one person who was enraged.

She urged fellow parents: “Write to your schools, demand they stop giving Chartwells the £30 and give parents food vouchers instead.”

Mark Perryman, pioneer of the Lewes three-supermarket all-day food bank collections, said: “Parents in Lewes remain highly sceptical, and are outraged at the profiteering done by Chartwells in these stricken times.

“As the furore over the profiteering erupted, it found an echo in Lewes when Ian McCrae of Lewes Coronavirus Volunteers discovered that the same company, Chartwells, is the supplier of all Lewes school meals.

“I asked Benetta Adamson, who helps out on the collections with a ‘trolley dash’ funded by the cash donations received, to see what she could buy from Aldi for £30 and compare with the local ‘free’ school lunch bags.

“The contrast was staggering.

“Benetta estimated that the contents of the Chartwells food bag bought at Aldi would have cost not much more than £2.50.

“Her own bag of school lunch groceries purchased at £30 provided almost five times the number of items and was vastly more nutritious.

“She even managed to retain £5 of the £30 spend to symbolise what any company would need for their overheads.”

Chartwells issued an apology over the parcel and education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed schools will be able to offer vouchers rather than food parcels from next week.

A spokesman for Chartwells said: “We have had time to investigate the picture that circulated on Twitter. For clarity, this shows five days of free school lunches – not ten 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.

“Our ten-day hampers typically include a wide variety of nutritious food items to support the provision of lunches for children.

“Where our food parcels have not met our usual high standards – we will be refunding the costs.

“We will be contacting every school to understand where any shortages may have occurred and we will apologise to anyone affected.”

Chartwells confirmed it was ‘further enhancing’ its food parcels following the Department for Education’s additional allowance of £3.50 per week per child in line with nutritional guidelines.

It also announced on Wednesday that it will add free breakfasts to its food parcels for children eligible for free school meals.

The breakfast will include bloomer, bagel, butter, yoghurts, juice, milk, oats and fruit.

Chris Collier, leader of the Labour group on Lewes District Council, said: “In the coming months, supporting local communities by keeping local money in those communities is going to be vital. East Sussex County Council could start by not contracting out services to these large corporations that can be provided locally.”

Lewes MP Maria Caulfield asked parents to contact her and promised to put pressure on Chartwells to review both the charging and contents of the bags.

She added: “It is clear that some companies are not providing an adequate service.

“Food vouchers can be issued instead and schools can apply for these on behalf of parents so please ask the school as this can be done very quickly.”

Councillor Kathryn Field, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for children and families on East Sussex County Council, described the food parcels distributed to children as a ‘national disgrace’.

“The amount of food parents have received to feed their children is not anything like enough to provide an adequate, nutritious lunch every day,” she said. “Nor do they appear to represent value for money, given what the parcels should theoretically be worth.

“The Conservatives should stop trying to defend the indefensible. Why on earth don’t they simply give the contract to our local food banks where volunteers now have years of experience in putting together boxes of nutritional and balanced food parcels and can step in where the Government has clearly failed.”

Lib Dem councillor Alan Shuttleworth added: “Yet again, children and families in East Sussex have been let down by this chaotic Conservative government. Only last week I raised concerns about how the Government failed to manage the return to school, putting hardworking teachers into an impossible position, and now we see another government failure in the basic need to keep children fed. I am also calling on the lead member for education and inclusion to provide an urgent update on the situation in schools.”

Councillor James MacCleary, parliamentary spokesperson, added: “Liberal Democrat MPs are calling on Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, to investigate the situation urgently and replace these abysmal hampers with food vouchers. Maria Caulfield should join us in this campaign to ensure the children in her constituency can be properly fed.”