A Compass-owned food provider has been axed as a supplier of lockdown meals to disadvantaged students at one of England’s largest academy chains after damning evidence emerged of children receiving “unacceptable” and “inadequate” food parcels.
The Harris Federation, which runs 50 schools in the UK, told parents it had stopped distributing free school meal packages from Chartwells, which is owned by Compass, the FTSE 100 food group.
The move follows outrage over poor food provision for disadvantaged children, after images of meagre rations sent to families by companies including Chartwells were widely circulated on social media by the Manchester United footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford.
Chartwells has been awarded school catering contracts worth at least £165m over the past four years, according to data firm Tussell. The Department for Education said it was “looking into” the images.
The images showed the contents of food parcels meant to cover Monday-Friday provision for one week which Chartwell said was funded at £10.50. The government has now topped up that value to £15 per pupil per week. One showed a parcel containing a solitary tomato, slices of processed cheese and bruised bananas. Mr Rashford branded the provision “just not good enough”.
Children’s and families minister Vicky Ford on Tuesday evening said she had held a meeting with the managing director of Chartwells and been “assured” that the company would take “immediate action” to prevent the deliveries of “poor-quality parcels”.
About 1.7m disadvantaged children in England receive free school meals. When schools were told at short notice last week that they had to close because of rising Covid-19 infections, headteachers and caterers moved quickly to ensure the meals could be delivered to homes.
Government guidance “strongly encouraged” schools to source food parcels from their existing catering providers, with a budget of £15 per pupil per week. Charities have called on ministers to give families cash or vouchers instead of food packages. A national scheme for schools to procure supermarket vouchers centrally has yet to be rolled out.
In the letter to parents sent on Tuesday afternoon, Harris Federation school leaders said they had been “appalled” by the “poor quality” of the packages sent by Chartwells.
“These parcels were unacceptable, both in terms of the selection of items and insufficient quantity provided,” the letter said. “We have complained to Chartwells in the strongest possible terms.”
The federation will instead distribute vouchers to pupils eligible for free school meals. It has requested that Chartwells does not charge schools for the meals that have been delivered, and said if the company agrees to the request, it will use it to fund the vouchers.
According to European procurement records, Harris agreed a £40m multiyear catering deal with Chartwells in 2018.
Compass has school catering contracts worth £181m over four years, not including those awarded separately to its Chartwell division. One top shareholder described the images of the food parcels as concerning. He added that if they were accurate the company could face a reputational risk akin to that experienced by fast-fashion retailer Boohoo last summer, when allegations of labour issues in its supply chain hit its share price.
Chartwells on Tuesday acknowledged that some of the images that had been shared online did show their meal packages. In a statement, the company said: “In our efforts to provide thousands of food parcels a week at extremely short notice we are very sorry the quantity has fallen short in this instance.”
In response to the letter from Harris Federation, it said: “We apologise and wherever we have come up short we will provide refunds.”
Headteachers across England on Tuesday said the images on social media were “broadly representative” of parcels meant to provide one week of meals for a school-age child.
Michael Tidd, a headteacher at East Preston junior school in West Sussex, said Chartwells had distributed food of a “poor” standard to his school.
“For some of these kids, this is normally their only hot meal, so to be given a loaf of bread and a packet of crisps doesn’t really cut it,” he said. “When our hampers arrived we did look at them and think: can we really give just that to people?”
Additional reporting by Attracta Mooney
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