What is the job of government? This is a question that has troubled political thinkers for centuries and many different politicians and philosophers have offered different answers. The Founding Fathers who wrote the US Constitution sought to label the function of government as being to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity and promote the general welfare [of its people],” whereas more libertarian thinkers such as Ayn Rand would argue that the purpose of government should be only to “uphold the values of individual rights.” This being said, almost all thinkers, regardless of political position, will argue that if government is to exist it should do so in a way that benefits the people.
Perhaps that is why the recent actions of our government have shocked and appalled so many in the manner in which they have.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous for all segments of society, but poor families who struggle to support themselves in regular conditions let alone in the midst of a global pandemic are arguably the worst affected group. Children of poor families are often recipients of free school meals and to a family on minimum wage income it can be a vital piece of financial aid. Given the current situation of uncertainty and high government spending however, the government passed a motion before Christmas to cut funding to the free school meals programme. The Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford (once himself reliant on free school meals) was outraged by this and intervened to help feed poorer families across the nation, something that the government initially refused to do.
With the UK re-entering a national lockdown last week and schools being forced to close, we once again turned to online learning to receive our education. There was doubt as to whether the government would change its tune over the provision of free school meals but, clearly keen to not be eclipsed by a footballer again, Mr Johnson decided that schools should indeed provide food for their most vulnerable pupils just as they would in normal times.
While initially a cause for celebration, the true nature of the government scheme was soon brought to light. Schools were given extra funding of £3.50 per week per eligible child (on top of funding for the existing free school meals programme) to provide their pupils with lunches. Alternatively schools could offer their pupils vouchers for supermarkets worth £15 per week, for which the schools would be reimbursed. The majority of schools do not make their own food in house, instead paying catering companies such as Chartwells to prepare food for their students, with the expectation that this food is nutritious and up to standard.
These catering companies, now armed with increased funding, should therefore aim to make sure that some of the most vulnerable children in British society are given lunch parcels that contain nutritious food in sufficient quantities, should they not? The Department for Education certainly thinks so (see below). One would be hard pressed to find someone who would be happy for these companies to take taxpayers’ money, spend a small portion of it on feeding those in need, and then simply pocket the rest. Unfortunately, this appears to be exactly what has happened.
Lunch parcels should contain items which parents can use to prepare healthy lunches for their child/children across the week – Department for Education on the GOV.uk website
On the 11th of January, an unnamed mother who uses the Twitter handle @RoadsideMum, posted the following photograph of the lunch parcel she was sent by Chartwells on behalf on her childrens’ school. Needless to say the parcel is certainly lacking both in nutritional value and in quantity:
10 days’ worth of lunches: funded by the taxpayer and delivered by Chartwells – @RoadsideMum via Twitter
The contents of this meagre food parcel are meant to be able to feed several children for lunch over 10 days and are also supposedly an adequate substitute for a £30 supermarket voucher. With that in mind, I decided to find the total cost of all the food pictured myself, with some prices obviously adjusted for the quantity shown. My total cost (as of January 13th on the Asda website) came to just £5.40. This sum of money is a mere 18% of the equivalent £30 supermarket voucher, and it brings to light at best incredibly poor value for taxpayer’s money and at worst a scheme of profiteering by the private companies offering free school meals.
For now however, all eyes are on the government and whether they will seek to fix this situation and ensure that the system of free school meals exists to benefit the people who need it, and allow poorer British children to participate in online learning effectively with the benefit of being well-fed.