Louisa Britain, the pseudonym of the mother who tweets as “Roadside Mum”, explains how the government should reform its free school lunch delivery
I heard that the food boxes given to clinically endangered shielders near me had finally arrived pretty full this week. “It was twice what it was before,” said my friend and a member of the local COVID-19 response group gratefully after being asked to help a recipient unbox the contents.
I’ve never tried expanding grocery boxes for Shielder, but it’s a welcome bonus.
My part in this story started with a disappointing free school lunch from the private company Chartwells. I posted a photo of its contents on social media, arranged on my beige living room carpet (pictured above), explaining how long this meal should last me. The photo went viral.
At the beginning of the January semester, the government decided to present free school meals – which my two children qualify for – in boxes or thin tote bags made of off-the-shelf items. This replaced the previously existing shopping voucher system that I had used quite successfully.
It turns out that my experience with the new system has been replicated in thousands of other households.
‘Marcus Rashford can get a meetingwith the government over my lunch and I can’t.That’s ridiculous’
As my photo made international headlines, I secured a potentially meaningful list of promises from the Chartwells CEO – but only because of significant public pressure.
Indeed, it seems that apologies from companies emerge more conveniently than the will to take either preventative or remedial action. Unfortunately, despite winning several heated and violent disputes from both Chartwells and the government, I do not believe change will be permanent.
The insurmountable flaw in the provision of public services by private companies is that the recipients of the service – in this case parents and children – are not the customer who commissioned them. The government pays a private company to provide a service, while no one in the government actually sees the end product. There is no responsibility whatsoever which makes the parents’ views irrelevant unless and until they cause a backlash on social media.
The government’s recent U-turn on free school meals now allows schools to use the previous voucher system, but not all schools have taken the break. While my own experience with coupons has been sufficient, many parents also report great difficulty with this option. Parents have described problems registering their coupons on centralized websites that are prone to crashing while also having trouble checking out.
The voucher system, like the food box system, earns money for private companies, whose costs and profits are borne entirely by the taxpayers. The same taxpayers who receive inadequate services from these companies.
Certain corners of the press may want to point out that “the taxpayer” is a term that applies only to those who have a regular full-time job. This is a rhetorical illusion designed to reduce support for people in need. I haven’t met a family who have managed to avoid taxes, council taxes, and sales tax. In contrast, an auditor can avoid all three.
Boxes of groceries or even flimsy tote bags like the one delivered to me didn’t care about children’s medical intolerances, nutritional needs, or cultural practices, no matter what they actually like to eat or what kind of kitchen equipment you have at home
Repackaged items that have been separated from larger shipments carry the risk of contamination and allergic reactions – not to mention the completely pointless food waste. Even if your child is naturally fond of a pasta, potato, and bread diet, wouldn’t you expect them to be fed up with the same three types of lunches every day?
My children are unusually easy to feed and are known by friends and family for pretty much polishing everything off happily, but I am not well and have little energy to prepare two different dinners.
Nor am I buying the line – pushed by some in the Conservative Party – that, if supplies were not arranged through vouchers or grocery boxes, some parents might divert their children’s allowances into personal indulgences like drugs or the services of sex workers.
The company behind thatFree school lunch scandal
There is a word for this type of parenting – neglect – which is a serious crime. Children who are at risk are entered in the child protection register. As far as I can tell, well under 1% of children in England are on this register and each and every one of them is supervised by social workers as required by law. We already have strict systems in place to respond to neglected children who are completely outside of the free school lunch system.
In reality, families do not need limited supplies through lucrative government contracts for boxes, bags, or vouchers. You need cash – otherwise nothing will fit on the bill.
Cash does not require a private middleman, it can be distributed quickly, it can be managed through existing systems, it is no shame, it allows unlimited choices and is critically accepted everywhere. Money is accepted just as quickly at Co-Op and Lidl – two large grocery retailers that do not participate in the free voucher program for school meals – as it is in the large, online approved discount grocery stores, at your local grocery store or at the gas station.
As usual, the solution is a lot simpler than the government wants to admit.
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