Food parcels first – Why the way the government treats its poor is bad news for everyone

Originally published in The Everyday Magazine.

If you are in the UK you can’t have missed the media uproar over the free school meals packages given out to parents homeschooling their children this week. I am one of these parents and I have a few things to say. Not just about the (sadly expected) mishandling of free school meals provision in a time of national crisis by the government, but also about how it feels to be on the receiving end. This latest debacle feels like the perfect example of how little our government thinks of us, and the poor choices they have made in a time when we need strong, fair leadership, more than ever. 

If you are a parent living with your child who claims out of work benefits, or work part time and earn under £7400 a year, your child is entitled to free school meals. In January 2020 17.3% of children received free school meals, or around 1.4 million.  The Food Foundation states that around 900,000 more children have become entitled to free school meals since the arrival of coronavirus, so let’s make that as of today roughly 2.3 million. 

During the pandemic, if your children are being homeschooled and receive free school meals, the government has a duty to still be providing them. On the whole, in the first lock down, qualifying families received £15 supermarket vouchers per week per child, reflecting the cost to paying families of five days’ school meals. But things changed this time; in this new lock down all children received a weekly or fortnightly food parcel this week, provided by private companies paid the £15 a week per child budget by the government to supply them.

On Monday 11th January Twitter user @RoadsideMum posted a photo of the food she received for her child, alongside an estimate of how much the food would have cost to buy herself at the supermarket: £5.22. The internet went into meltdown after her tweet was retweeted thousands of times, with many posting similar photos and many more demanding to know who had pocketed the missing money, and why it was okay for private companies to profit from child poverty. 

I am a single mother with two children, receiving benefits because I am also a registered carer and can therefore only work part time. Shit happens; it doesn’t make me a bad, stupid or lazy person; a lesser person than when I had a well-paid job. In the first lock down we received £30 a week of supermarket vouchers, and they were a massive help in providing the constant stream of food that came out of my kitchen having both of my children at home all day every day. We are lucky I don’t rely more on the government’s help to feed my kids, as I have been able to keep working through the lock down and we have a steady, if low, income. Many are not so lucky. 

I went along to school yesterday to pick up my daughter’s first food parcel, I already knew it was going to be bad, but to go through the experience of picking up a food parcel for the first time, and to be given what I can only describe as cheap, low quality food, much of which my kids won’t touch, was a proper kick in the teeth. 

Where shall I start? Firstly, my kids are fussy, like many are. They turn their noses up at granary bread, because, you know, bits in bread Mum. My son is autistic and has multiple issues around the taste and texture of his food. Secondly, I am a bloody good cook, I know what to feed my kids and I know what they like, and they are used to tasty food, made with, in the main, decent ingredients (unless it’s pizza night). Even those parents who can’t cook for love or money have the ability to choose food their children will like and enjoy. It doesn’t take being well-off to learn that parenting skill.

I would say there was about £10-£12 worth of, dare I say it, pretty crappy food in there, whilst before I would have bought £30 worth of decent food with the vouchers as part of my main supermarket shop. What’s even worse, a lot of the food will go uneaten. The catering size pack of what my son calls ‘comedy cheese’ (the sliced, plasticky stuff) will go uneaten. So will the loaf of granary bread. The iceberg lettuce will end up being fed to the tortoise. The potatoes are on the turn and need cooking in the next day or so to save them from the compost bin. Neither of my kids like chocolate custard (there is a hell of a lot of chocolate custard, maybe a ⅓ of what has been spent by Chartwells on this food package has been spent on Frubes and chocolate custard). As I surveyed my handout of lowest-grade-possible food laid out on the kitchen table all I could think was what a waste of money, resources, and time. 

The two huge bags of pasta and four tins of tomatoes will come in handy, as will the single cucumber, tin of tuna and tin of beans, but just imagine relying on this for your child’s lunches completely? Imagine having to dish your child up the same meal day in day out once the bread, beans and tuna run out after two or three days? That is over a week of serving them yet another bowlful of pasta and warmed through tinned tomatoes (no oil, no mayo, no butter, no herbs are provided) for lunch every day. And sadly, in this proud, rich country called Great Britain, that is the current reality for too many families in 2021.

Yes, the parcels are mean and meagre, you know that already, but I want to talk about something bigger as well. The government, at the time of writing, has made another spectacular u-turn and reintroduced the voucher scheme. But at some point in the last few months, someone somewhere has looked at the simple, low cost, successful scheme of emailing low income parents supermarket vouchers to help cover the costs of feeding their children, and decided to scrap it and introduce a ‘food parcel first’ policy. Using the majority of the free school meals budget, which could be used for food, to pay private companies to source, buy, assemble and distribute them. But why?

Maybe the scheme was seen as too generous; many think such generosity will not encourage those who don’t work to look for work, or those that don’t work ‘enough’ to try to find jobs working longer hours. Maybe they thought the system gave too much freedom to the ‘feckless poor’ to make their own choices about what and how to feed their family? This feeds into the well-worn rhetoric that all people ‘on benefits’ will spend any scraps of cash given to them on fags, prosecco, acrylic nails, crack or fancy tech, and will happily see their children go hungry in order to do so. Or was the decision made purely because someone from the government said in a Zoom meeting “Hey guys, just realised, nobody is making money out of this voucher scheme, how can we monetise poverty and disaster to benefit the private businesses of the UK?”

For whatever reason, the government decided to take away a large swathe of the country’s choice and pride; to infantilise poorer parents, deciding our children are only worth endless plates of iceberg lettuce draped with limp slices of comedy cheese, possibly because we can’t be trusted to be able to feed our own kids the right way or manage our own budgets.

Left with a lot of uncomfortable feelings yesterday, I have tried to unpick the anger, frustration and shame rolling through me. It came to me that the feelings are reminiscent of reactions to low level abuse and controlling tactics meted out to many, whether by a controlling partner or punishing parent. But in this case UK society is the controlling, punitive abuser. The government’s doling out of cheap, low grade food feels like having a small part of my autonomy as a parent taken away, a punishment for my life circumstances, a move to keep me in my place, a removal of control. I feel like I don’t deserve choices, my children don’t deserve ‘nice things’ and my life is to be scorned. In the words of the great Kathy Burke yesterday: ‘I was a poor kid growing up. I always felt looked after, not looked down on’.

If you don’t agree with me, if you think beggars can’t be choosers, if you think that low income families only have themselves to blame, you should at least be worried about where your money, the taxpayers money, that would have been spent on feeding the country’s poorer children, has gone. I can tell you exactly where it has gone; into the pockets of the CEOs of the catering companies. The only way the economy has trickled down in this situation is we have been thrown some scraps. The free school meals debacle has turned into a microcosmic example of how the government views the UK’s citizens, with thoughtlessness and greed, which is how we are all being treated during this pandemic. And you should be angry about that at least; as angry, frustrated and ashamed as me. 

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