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The latest free school meals debacle shows governmental failure to provide for poor children

It would take a truly stupendous event to undermine the Brexit controversy that has engulfed the last four years, ultimately promoting Boris Johnson from mayor to Prime Minister. Covid-19 has burst like a tsunami through the public’s expectations of their politicians; crisis after crisis has led to social issues have been swept to one side to focus on survival. Underneath the political response has been a debate as to whether a proactive or a reactive approach most effectively combats the pandemic. Whereas the lockdowns were based around reactivity to the contagion of the virus, the vaccine promises a proactive response to the ongoing tragedy that this country faces. 

Yet it seems like the government has forgotten the importance of social welfare for this country’s prosperity. On Tuesday 12th January, a photo went viral of the government’s free school meal package for families at home. In the package- intended to feed the children for ten days- there was a small package of pasta, two potatoes, 3 frubes, two bananas, two carrots, 2 soreen, 2 cans of baked beans, 3 apples, a few cheese slices, an unbranded loaf of bread and, bizarrely, a tomato. This scheme promised the equivalent of £30 worth of food for 10 days during the third national lockdown. Whether or not the original Twitter user Roadside Mum’s claim that it was worth £5.22 is accurate is difficult to ascertain, but it is unquestionable that the paucity of these cheap products could only equate to a few pounds. Economics aside, this array of items is a middle finger to cohesive meal plans: it is difficult to imagine someone actively buying this for their children’s lunchboxes or, god forbid, serving it in a school cafeteria. Moreover, another family was given assorted bread-making ingredients and instructions for how to make it into rolls- perhaps forgetting the purpose of free school meals is to help and support, rather than create an additional chore. Other families complained of products that were a day away from their sell-by date; some of the items were additionally wrapped in money bags, a hilariously appropriate symbol.

Of course, this is not the government’s fault directly- the catering company, Chartwells, publicly apologised. Those who received the meals will be able to receive vouchers from January 18th. However, the lacklustre, borderline insulting offerings from this catering company is a response to the government’s strategy of attempting to decimate the school meal offerings without attracting attention. Before a fierce social media campaign led by Marcus Rashford, the government was prepared to let free school meals stop. After the rise of #makeauturn, however, the government pledged a £170 million package for councils with 80% allocated to support families with food and bills. Yet the Department for Education has declared in their advice for schools that ‘schools do not need to provide lunch parcels or vouchers during the February half term’. The government also voted, in majority, against extending free school meals into the holidays during an opposition day debate in October, prompted by a petition by Marcus Rashford. Marcus Rashford has also pleaded with the government for a free school meal review, backed by celebrities such as Emma Thompson and Jamie Oliver.

The sad fact is that people who are not politicians, like Marcus Rashford, and memorably Captain Tom Moore should not be expending time and effort to support services that provide our basic human rights. That is literally what the government is for. Whether or not we agree with the politics involved, every move the government makes should be closely watched. Like them, as citizens, we must take a proactive approach in eliminating the spread of poverty, and not let incidents like these disgraceful free school meal packages go un-responded to. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons