Questions have been raised again about one of the many private contracts that the government has given out during the pandemic. This time, concerns have risen over the company awarded one of the contracts to provide free school meal packages to eligible students who are unable to go back to school during this new lockdown.

Thirty pounds doesn’t seem to stretch far

Rather than give parents £30 worth of food vouchers (the same vouchers Conservative MP Ben Bradley said parents would use in ‘crack dens’), the government opted instead to let Chartwells (part of the Compass Group) have one of their many lucrative private contracts to deliver the £30 worth of food packages.

However according to multiple social media posts, it seems that the £30 isn’t going very far.

This post from user @RoadsideMum shows a pitiful selection of not-particularly nutritious bits and pieces of food: 2 jacket potatoes, a tin of beans, 8 single cheese slices, a loaf of bread, 2 carrots, 3 apples, 3 Frubes, 2 small Soreen bars, spare pasta and a single tomato. All of which is supposed to feed a child for 10 days.

In a follow-up tweet the user shows that the collection of food she’s been given can’t have cost much more than £5.22. So where has the rest of the £30 gone?

Nothing new

This isn’t actually anything new in the story of food packages during the pandemic. According to the Good Law Project, an FOI request revealed that a government contract worth £208 million was awarded to Bidfood and Brakes without contest to provide food packages to those shielding during the first lockdown. It was also revealed that the government paid the company £44 per box, which was a 69 per cent mark-up on the £26 retail price of the box’s contents.

But that’s not all. There were multiple complaints about these food packages, including but not limited to the fact that the contents didn’t meet a normal adult’s nutritional needs, and didn’t seem to take into account any additional needs of people with serious medical conditions (those most likely to be shielding). There were also multiple reports of food being delivered already rotten.

The photos circulating on social media however seem to come specifically from food packages delivered by Chartwells, the educational caterers that form part of the Compass Group. Multiple Twitter users have posted similar photos with similar stories. Chartwells themselves appear to have denied this on Twitter, stating that the photo of the food package from @RoadsideMum ‘does not reflect the specification of one of our hampers’.

However, along with many other twitter users, famous food writer and journalist Jack Monroe then replied and asked if Chartwells could make public what was in fact contained in their food hampers, as this was not the only photo of its kind doing the Twitter round. 

Chartwells is yet to respond to the Tweet, but according to the BBC they have said that a standard two-week hamper should contain:

Cheese (200g)

Six red apples

Four oranges

Four bananas

Two cucumbers

Four carrots

Eight baked potatoes

One lettuce

Two tomatoes

Four cans of baked beans

1kg of pasta

Four tins of chopped tomatoes

Two tins of tuna

Four tins of green peas

One loaf of bread

Three malt loaf snacks

Six yoghurts

So, who are the Compass Group?

Up until December 2020 the Chairman was Paul Walsh, who is not only a former member of David Cameron’s business advisory group, but is also on the list of the top 100 Conservative Party donors back in 2015. 

The group also received £437 million in support from the government last year due to the pandemic, despite reporting a pre-tax profit of £210 million at the end of the 2020 fiscal year.

A series of tweets show footballer Marcus Rashford — who made headlines earlier in the year for challenging the government when it refused to provide free school meals over the summer and half-term period — in contact with the company. Rashford tweets that he has been told that ‘Chartwells is not the exclusive supplier of FSM across the UK’. If however the packages being shared on Twitter are indeed from Chartwells, then the situation may only be affecting those schools that have arranged to have their meals supplied by this particular company.

Chartwells also told Rashford that the photos circulating online, which include a pepper, are not from one of their hampers.

This story is still unfolding. So far, it appears that catering companies and the government are pointing the finger at each other. What is clear is that based on the multitude of photos now appearing on social media of sub-par food packages, somewhere something has gone very wrong.

In a thread, Jack Monroe has posted various photos that she received from people claiming to be parents and free school meal recipients, as well as messages from other people claiming to work for Chartwells. The messages appear to confirm that these are Chartwells’ packages and that the people involved are disgusted by the portion sizes they were made to send off.

 Just another donor company?

If the tweets and photos turn out to be largely true, then it appears that Chartwells are just another company in a long list of companies who are either large donors or with links to the Conservative Party — and who have benefited from lucrative private contracts both during and before the pandemic.

So far, the revelations have not placed the government in the best light. Not only because they made such a meal of first refusing and then U-turning on their commitment to provide free school meals to children outside of term time, but because the public’s general desire to feed hungry children appears to have been used as a way to fill the pockets of the government’s mates with taxpayers’ money.

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