After being forced into a U-turn by footballer and food poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford to provide Free School Meals to children in the summer, the government have this week been under fire for their Dickensian approach (‘please sir, could I have a third of a carrot?’). Eligible children were sent their first FSM ‘hampers’ since the UK went into the third national lockdown at the beginning of January, and parents, faced with the sight of cling-film-wrapped pepper halves and tuna divided into change-sorting bags, shared the contents of these boxes on social media.
Activist and author Jack Monroe has been sharing further examples, amplifying the voices of those usually brushed to the side. As they said on BBC News yesterday, ‘it is once again people who have got absolutely no idea about the realities that people face in Britain making decisions for them, taking away their dignity, their agency and their advocacy.’
Unlike the scheme launched over the summer holiday, when parents were provided with vouchers equating to £15 per week per child, schools were this time around tasked with sourcing meals for eligible children – at very short notice. Part of the reason for the switch to food parcels was the confected crisis some tabloids and Tory MPs, such as Ben Bradley, created at the end of summer, claiming that the vouchers were used to purchase drugs and alcohol.
The vouchers, of course, could not be used to buy age-restricted products, but the false narrative took hold. The move from vouchers to meal boxes was representative of the typical distrust of the poor in this country and the paradox in welfare retrenchment, a supposed ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’ which decreases benefit payments while simultaneously increasing micro-management of people’s lives. Working families cannot be trusted to make their own decisions on what to buy with their money; in this case, they cannot even be trusted with a full tomato.
The other side of this—the further impetus for favouring meal boxes over cash transfers—is the thread common throughout the various scandals and crises the government have created during this pandemic: outsourcing. What better way to line the pockets of your friends, family, and donors than to require an unnecessary middle-man, a company that purely exists for the sake of creating profit. The legacy of PFIs and an ever-increasing gutting of local authority and in turn school budgets through austerity measures means schools outsource their food provision.
It was these companies, such as Chartwells—whose parent company’s ex-chair is a Tory Party donor—that were providing these meal boxes. This recent scandal is symptomatic of outsourcing in general and school meals in particular, with an employee of Chartwells claiming the food they have to serve children ordinarily is ‘disgusting’ and ‘expensive’; a poor quality, overpriced service that is not run in the interests of the user or the public.
This was also seen in the food boxes those in the shielding category were sent during the first national lockdown. These boxes, which were organised by DEFRA and outsourced to private companies, were found to be of poor nutritional quality, with food repackaged to hide expiry dates. Unsurprisingly, they were also considerably overpriced: each £44 box was estimated to contain £26 worth of food at retail prices. The Good Law Project has challenged ministers on whether the shielding scheme boosted ‘profit margins at the expense of the health of vulnerable groups’, and is now considering legal action against the government.
Charities have been instrumental in food provision since the first national lockdown in March 2020, and indeed are now coming forward to plug the gaps where these FSM boxes are being provided. However, they cannot be a sustainable solution to a progressive food future. Charities have to compete with one another for limited funding, and often rely on partnerships with private companies, whose employment practices can lead to their workers being in need of food aid themselves, and who in turn use charities to launder their reputations. A painfully pertinent example is that Chartwells is a member of Marcus Rashford’s Child Food Poverty Task Force. While Rashford is rightly outraged at the quality of these boxes, one of the companies providing them has been using his initiative to flex their charitable credentials.
Moreover, the people who use charitable services have no control over the organisation, how they receive the food or often what food they receive. Charities are usually run by middle-income earners who provide the service they consider most appropriate, and which is done unto low- and no-income people. This leaves people disempowered with little agency over their own food intake, and creates a dependency on insecure forms of provision. Under a charitable food system, people do not have any guaranteed rights to food.
The National Food Service has a solution to the food crisis in this country: a well-funded, community-run food service that is user-led and universal. Many of our branches have provided food throughout the pandemic, but we need to move beyond emergency food provision. We need to build a service that stops people getting to a place where they are in a crisis situation. We need a well-funded food service where nutritious, culturally appropriate and affordable food is delivered by unionised workers earning a living wage in dedicated community buildings in every neighbourhood across the country.
Under a National Food Service, there will be no segregation between rich and poor, working and non-working, deserving and undeserving. Branches will be user-led so each venue will operate according to the community it serves. These are spaces that are more than just the food they offer. For instance, Food Hall Project, the birthplace of the National Food Service, has regular art exhibitions, quiz nights, karaoke, gigs, and a communal garden. These venues will not be a source of shame – they will be a second living room for those in the community. The National Food Service won’t be done unto people, it will be created by them and for them. This not only solves food insecurity: it creates stronger communities, and hopefully, a socialist politics.
This is not an impossible dream. It’s already being done. Hundreds of people are already working with their communities to provide free and affordable food for everyone to enjoy. Just like public services of the past, a National Food Service is being built from the ground up. These existing projects just need guaranteed funding, resources and training to ensure everyone has access to a nutritious, tasty and filling meal. Only by building resilient communities around food can we avoid another crisis like this one.