You’ve probably seen the photos by now. The measly portion of cheese; the tuna bunched up in a plastic bag. Whole peppers have been halved and carrots divvied up into stubs. There’s something deeply sickening about it. It can sometimes be difficult to summon up the motivation to stay consistently informed and angry about UK politics, especially when government failures occur so often that they render numb whatever part of you used to care. Every so often however, a collection of images can once again capture those powerful and all-consuming feelings of injustice and disgust.
Surfacing this week on Twitter were several pictures of food parcels that had been delivered to children across the country in place of their school meals, and what’s inside them – in many cases barely amounting to more than £5 worth of food – perfectly encapsulates the problem with modern Britain. It seems whoever decided on what food to put in these deliveries has been left feeling inspired after the festive period, because what’s been included carries all the hallmarks of an admirer of Ebenezer Scrooge. Besides the exotic penne pasta and grinning Frube yoghurts much of their contents could easily have been lifted straight from a Dickens novel, displaying the same sort of miserable cruelty you would expect from a Victorian workhouse master. Sadly, this isn’t some thing of the past but a tragedy that is alive and well today, enabled by the ignorant attitudes that stem from Britain’s class divide.
Tory politicians were quick to try and stamp on the issue before it caught the attention of news outlets, with Minister for Local Government Simon Clarke accusing those on Twitter of “seeking to whip a storm up” over the problem, and that people really ought “to wait for the facts before jumping in”. The facts have indeed arrived by this point, and the optics are absolutely atrocious for all those implicated in this disgrace. The parcels were meant to be a replacement for £30 of food vouchers which were supposedly open to abuse, and yet with little over £5 worth of contents people were rightly asking: what’s happened to the other 25 quid? The answer to its whereabouts lies cloaked in the shadowy dealings of Britain’s private contractors – in this case a school catering company called Chartwells.
Chartwells (the company contracted out by the government to provide these parcels) is in familiar territory when it comes to feeding the mouths of hungry shareholders rather than disadvantaged children. No stranger to repeated scandals, the firm has been implicated in stingy, out of date food parcels when the pandemic began, as well as reports of questionable employment practices at universities where it had secured contracts to cater. All of this, despite its parent firm Compass Group raking in profits of £561 million last year and its CEO, Dominic Blakemore, pocketing a cool £1.2 million in 2020 amid the global pandemic.
You have to wonder how such a shameless corporation could be trusted with £346 million in government contracts since 2016, but the revelation of Compass Group’s continued success at securing these deals is bound up in the wider, more incriminating story of Westminster’s insistence on outsourcing its responsibilities to incompetent private firms with connections to government. In the case of Compass it has been revealed that their ex-Chairman Paul Walsh who stepped down last month is a huge benefactor of the Conservative Party to the tune of six figures, and if that weren’t bad enough the man drafted in to replace him (Ian Meakins) has suspicious business links to veteran Conservative MP Ken Clarke.
These are just the latest revelations in a string of seedy backroom deals that have come to light over the course of the COVID-19 crisis. From PPE procurement to Nightingale Hospitals to Track and Trace, each time Boris Johnson’s government have hand selected bad value, corner-cutting contractors with political connections, paid for with our taxes. But that isn’t the main story here. All this information is out in the open for anyone to examine for themselves – it’s as infuriating as it is blatant. I would argue that you can’t really expect the Conservatives to act in any other fashion; they make it very clear that privatisation is a foundational pillar of their approach to government. What we should really be reflecting on (and what the food parcel scandal really exposes) is how their behaviour is mandated by Britain’s opinion of the working class.
This opinion reared its ugly head before back in October, the last time child poverty and food insecurity was headline news. Faced with a vote on whether to provide free school meals over the holidays, 320 Tory MPs voted against the motion to deprive vulnerable children food security whilst the schools were off. Vile behaviour, but again: not surprising. What I’d like to draw attention to instead are the widely-held beliefs among people in the UK that the problem of poverty lies with those that suffer from it.
You know the government has really screwed things up when Nigel Farage finds himself agreeing with you, yet his tweet berating the Tories on their hypocrisy was just as much an online hot bed for ignorance as anything else he has to say. “Our benefits system is extremely generous as it is,” replied @whothebloodyhel, who went on to say “It would only breed dependency I’m afraid ..they have money but choose dogs,tattoos [sic] large TVs and cider .. I grew up on egg and chips … did me no harm”. @keith_bloke (you really can’t make up these handles) chimed in with “Next will be free iphones, free tattoos, free sky, Netflix. What happens when the money runs out?”, whilst @Jackie___P wrote: “£21 per week if Mum cooks meals instead of ready meals & pizza that child can eat well”.
I don’t bring these up to suggest that this vocal minority is in some way representative of a majority opinion – I’m using them as examples to show the sort of undercurrent of blame that people still assign to households that are financially destitute. I think pointing to the media as a major factor in people forming these beliefs ignores the fact that plenty of programmes wouldn’t get made, nor tabloid articles written, if there wasn’t already a demand for them. Britain demonising the working class predates the invention of the printing press. In saying that, it would be hard to deny that shows like Jeremy Kyle, poverty safaris like Benefits Street or front page headlines in The Sun about boob jobs paid for by the NHS don’t hold some serious sway in stoking the fires of hatred against supposed ‘scroungers’.
The truly saddening thing about the politicising of free school meals isn’t that the ignorant among us have shown their true colours, but rather goes to show the depths to which our politics have sunk in recent times. Even if those harmful tropes about poor people are to be believed – that they’re lazy, that they spend all their money on fags, booze and drugs, or that they don’t know how to look after their kids – why then does that justify ruthlessly punishing the children in those households for their parent’s supposed shortcomings?
There is a wealth of research to suggest that growing up in deprivation with food insecurity can have life-altering, long term consequences for a child. Poverty can have a detrimental impact on a child’s psychological, social, and behavioural development. It can severely impair a child’s ability to perform well in school, and in turn affect their earnings potential and likelihood to turn to crime. It can damage their physical and mental health outcomes for the rest of their life. The stigma and shame associated with all these things can weigh heavily upon a person for a very long time, and the scars they carry with them from the experience can condemn them to remain in the same poverty trap that they were born into through no fault of their own.
This then brings us back to the parcels. What do they say about the worth we place in our country’s kids, our future citizens? Why are tomatoes being cut in half and onions quartered when we splurged close to a billion pounds on the Eat Out to Help Out scheme in August? What sort of message does that send? I don’t know what’s more depressing: that the most vulnerable in our society are being sent such pitiful rations or that someone at Chartwells completed a cost analysis and worked out that it was more profitable to employ someone to slice up and plastic wrap these vegetables rather than provide them whole.
The parcels were supposed to be a substitute for the previous system of food vouchers, which were allegedly being used to purchase cigarettes, alcohol and illicit drugs. This is where the greatest harm comes from demonising the working class – when prejudice begins to inform policy. The vouchers were in fact blocked from being spent on age-restricted products in shops, but that didn’t stop Conservative MP Ben Bradley from ludicrously trying to claim that they were being exchanged in crack dens and brothels. All this bigotry is what underpins the cruelty and profiteering of schemes like food parcels; if we don’t trust parents in poverty that they are best placed to spend vouchers on their own children then that excuses handing that responsibility to a private company whose only dedication is to their bottom line.
As hard as I try, I can’t wrap my head around how this is a better approach. Even if the finances were a greater concern to me than preserving the dignity of hungry children, the taxpayer is getting the rawest of deals out of these parcels. Food is quite literally being taken out of the mouths of those most in need to maximise profits, and it’s being sanctioned on the basis that those in need can’t even be trusted to feed their own. It’s a rotten system, propped up by the support of people who have swallowed whole the idea that corporations are better placed to spend our money than the people that money is intended to benefit.
The government have thankfully been forced into yet another U-turn, with the voucher system reinstated owing to the ceaseless and incredible work of campaigners like Marcus Rashford and Jack Monroe. This however remains a cold comfort when the classism which drives the heartlessness of schemes like the food parcels remains. Until we can directly challenge and address that then there will surely be another incident like this where a private company chooses profit over the needs of vulnerable people entrusted in its care. It is only through solidarity and empathy for the millions who are reliant on food banks, who have had their incomes ripped away by the pandemic, and whose kids are going hungry that we can be empowered to push back against the Chumocracy of well-connected contractors that feast off of their suffering.
Words by Charlie Forbes
Cover artwork by Katy Bremner (Instagram: @katsbrems)
Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:
The Guardian – ‘Rashford: something ‘going wrong’ with free school meal deliveries’
The Trussell Trust – ‘Oxford University Report’
Jordan Theresa – ‘the demonisation of the working class’
Joseph Rowntree Foundation – ‘Does money affect children’s outcomes?’
The Food Foundation – ‘New evidence of child food insecurity in the UK’
Financial Times – ‘Compass faces ‘critical questions’ on food parcels for children’
The Guardian – ‘Ben Bradley urged to apologise over free school meals tweets’
Metro – ‘Boss behind free school meals scandal earned £4,700,000 last year’
The Guardian – ‘Rashford free school meals row shines light on role of catering firms’
The Independent – ‘Free meals firm at centre of outcry was run by Conservative party donor’
The Independent – ‘Alliance UniChem in surprise CEO move’
George Monbiot – ‘How teenagers ended up operating crucial parts of England’s test and trace system’
LSE Blog – ‘The PPE scandal shines a light on the worrying future of UK procurement law’
The Independent – ‘Eat Out to Help Out: Businesses claimed £849m for 160 million meals’