Cash should be going to families, not to big business

13th January 2021

A viral tweet of 11 January exposed the depressing reality for over 1.4 million young people in England who are supposedly being supported by Free School Meal (FSM) hampers. The said hamper was intended to feed a school-age child for 10 days, however barely contained £5 worth of food. Enraged responses have erupted from politicians and civil society, including Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United star whose food poverty campaign forced the government into two U-turns.

The images have outraged everyone at Legendary Community Club (LCC). We are a community organisation that grew out of a mutual aid group in Lewisham in June 2020. Initially created to support schools during the holidays to provide FSM, we are now an established emergency food provider working with schools and youth clubs through Youth First, to ensure young people and their families are not left without during term time and holidays. However, this is not the world we want to live in and we refuse to normalise food provision as a solution to food poverty. This is NOT an inevitable situation. So we are campaigning to bring about structural reforms to protect citizens from the devastating effects of food shortages and lobbying central and local government to address the root causes of poverty. We strive to preserve the dignity, choice and health of the people we support, which makes the current scandal even more devastating to witness.

Image of items of food in the FSM hamper provided by Chartwells, courtesy of @Roadsidemum

We immediately contacted our partners and started investigating what was going on. When the government announced a new lockdown, they assured struggling families that their children would still receive the FSM support while they attended school from home. This support was supposed to be given on a weekly basis starting from the 4th January until the 8th February.

Schools were “strongly encouraged” by the latest government’s guidelines to adopt a “food parcel first” approach by contacting the schools own catering team or food suppliers, such as Chartwells (the educational arm of the worlds largest caterer, Compass Group who made a profit of £561 million in 2020). If they did so, they would receive £3.50 per week per pupil receiving FSM at home.

Schools were also given the option to provide £15 per week (per eligible child) in food vouchers to families. The schools we work with explained they have yet to receive funds for this, and they have used their own budget instead. Ederen, the company to whom the central government contracted to set up the voucher scheme, has at time of writing, not yet delivered and has had issues designing such a system for schools in the past. This is extremely worrying considering that in March 2020 90% of schools in England opted for vouchers instead of hampers to provide FSM.

The schools we work with have confirmed that they may be receiving FSM hampers instead of vouchers, in which case LCC will step in so those children are not malnourished as a result of inadequate provision.

Marcus Rashford contacted Chartwell to ask “Is 1 meal a day from Mon-Fri sufficient for children most vulnerable?”. It is evident that the additional £3.50 per week in funding for schools cannot properly sustain a school-age child. Even if catering companies are found to not have followed governmental guidelines, we must ask: how can the government expect guidelines to be followed when they refuse to give adequate funding?

Over 17% of school age children in England are eligible for FSM while 1.2 million (2 in 5) children living below the poverty line are ineligible, with the annual income cap (excluding benefits) for eligibility being a shocking £7,400 after tax, compared with £14,000 in Northern Ireland. While government and big business continue to treat poverty as a moral flaw, and not the consequence of structural disinvestment and racial injustice, families will continue, intentionally or unintentionally, to be treated with contempt.

It is clear that a food hamper approach is a mistake.

“What’s needed are cash grants paid directly to people as well as rapid improvements to the social security system and wage increases,” said Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), a network LCC are a member of. IFAN and Child Poverty Action Group are calling for a #CashFirst approach, and argue that it is more efficient because it tackles poverty as what it is, a lack of money, and not as a moral dilemma. Most families told CPAG that “they preferred to receive support through direct payments to their bank accounts, as this method allowed flexibility, dignity, safety and convenience.” It is also a solution that takes the power from the hands of paternalistic governments and corporations, and places it where it belongs: in the hands of the people who have been disproportionately affected by the mismanagement of this pandemic, and that are structurally more at risk of poverty, namely people of colour, single-parent families, and disabled people.

This is but the latest episode showcasing the absurdity of the UK welfare system that seems to have been designed to ridicule and trap people, rather than to ensure equality of opportunity is a reality. Not only should we be doing more, but we can and must do more through radical systemic interventions that address long standing inequalities, to honour and protect our future generations. As food providers we can continue to campaign for and pilot where possible, a #CashFirst approach, as members of the public, keep informed, stay angry and speak up.

Ines Silva and Dr Rachel H Tribe, Legendary Community Club