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The Great School Meals Rip-Off

The miserable school meal 'hampers' are the latest public services outsourced to for-profit companies that consistently fail to deliver. Childhood hunger should not be lining private pockets.

Gut-wrenching images of what families have received as part of the free school meals programme have rightly sparked outrage. Even after the government was forced kicking and screaming last year to give out food to children, the meal bags sent to families who opted for a package of food instead of a £30 voucher are clearly overpriced and profoundly inadequate. Many were given a ‘hamper’, which—as @roadsidemum on Twitter calculated—was worth as little as £5.22, suggesting a massive mark-up on each bag delivered to families.

It will come as no surprise that this wasn’t a publicly delivered food hamper. Instead, this scandal is just the latest in a long list of examples of the government shirking its responsibility to deliver the most basic of public services. The images circulating of free school meal bags therefore serve as a powerful visual reminder of just how catastrophic outsourcing can be – a minimal and miserly service, at rip-off prices that cheat both the person in need of the service and the government whose responsibility it should be to deliver it.

The newest pantomime villain of this privatisation debacle to enter the stage is Chartwells – the company behind some of the hampers. They’re a subsidiary of Compass Group, the world’s largest catering provider, which recorded profits of £1.88 billion in late 2019. Compass’s previous chairman is a donor to the Conservative Party, and was a member of David Cameron’s business advisory group.

As we’ve seen time and again, Chartwells – like the rest of the outsourced companies tasked with the delivery of our public services – have delivered a shoddy service, cutting corners and creaming off profit. People are right to be disgusted that a company could look to profit so brazenly from providing insufficient food to children, so the Department for Education has been keen to pin the blame on Chartwells, and Chartwells will likely in turn blame a few wayward staff.

But we must recognise that this is not a tale of one bad apple or one dodgy company. It’s the logical conclusion of the pernicious ideology which claims private companies are better than the state, councils, or schools, at running vital services.

Profit-making is inherent to any system where private companies are put in charge of public services. So while Chartwells’ profile statement says the company is ‘Nourishing young bodies and minds with exceptional food and learning’, ultimately, they’re accountable to their shareholders. In contracting out free school meal provision, the government has thus chosen to leave children vulnerable to those who see child poverty and depleted public services as a business opportunity, rather than something to be tackled with every fibre of the state.

Sadly, this approach is nothing new. In March 2020, schools were advised to turn to third-party contractors if their in-house caterers were not available. This practice is increasingly common: school catering has been systematically outsourced for years as it becomes less and less possible for each school to host a kitchen and staff while faced with decimated funding in the ashes of austerity.

Some councils have already stepped up to the plate and showed what local government can deliver by putting councillors in charge of providing food for those who need it – not just children, but also those self-isolating through local test-and-trace programmes. But many didn’t have the resources, and most won’t be able to do this long-term as long as they face post-Covid budget holes of billions and recover from a decade of central government withholding funds.

In this context, and with the images of meagre food portions wedged in people’s minds, it’s no surprise that some have asked whether giving money directly to families would be a better use of government funds.

A stronger response to this scandal would be for the government to bring the delivery of free school meals back in-house, and to involve all of the community in food provision. In fact, building the infrastructure needed for free school meals could be a crucial part of pandemic recovery. Rolling out a public free school meals programme could provide good, unionised jobs, community infrastructure, public capacity, and high-quality meals for people in need.

To strengthen the ability for the public sector to deliver major projects, it’s important to task the public sector with ambitious aims, and to give it the resources it needs to deliver. A public free school meals programme could be the kind of mission called for by Mariana Mazzucato to begin to reverse the hollowing-out of the state that has occurred over forty years.

This isn’t a pipe dream. It’s already happening elsewhere in the world. Finland has had universal free school meals for 70 years. The country recognises that free school meals support study, provide energy to students, and increase students’ knowledge of food.

Finnish municipalities are in charge of free school meals. Across the country, free school meals have been combined with food education.

A national board provides guidelines for free school meals. Students participate in evaluating and providing feedback on the programme, and some schools have ‘school food committees’ made up of teachers, students, and health and food professionals. One Finnish policy report notes that the programme was introduced ‘to level out social differences […] in parallel with the general development of the country’, and connects it to Finland’s widely lauded education system.

No policy can be imported simply from a very different social context, and not every element of the Finnish model will be relevant to the UK. Outsourcing is sometimes now used in Finland, though ‘most municipalities centralise […] services using a single producer organisation.’

But what the Finnish free-school-meals-for-all system demonstrates is that a publicly-backed free school meals programme is possible and valuable – perhaps especially if launched at a time when reconstruction is needed.

One concern sometimes raised about insourced free school meal programmes is the lack of existing government infrastructure and equipment to deliver them. But this concern is overstated. The government is capable of drawing on the skills and approaches used in other school meal providers, by directly employing expertise. Where this concern is still real, it should be treated as an opportunity.

Why can’t the government, as part of its much-hyped infrastructure investment plan, build community kitchens across the country to provide schools with the infrastructure needed to deliver free school meals?

Once the vaccine has been rolled out, this could be an exciting opportunity to employ people in construction, cooking, and public delivery and logistics roles. It would get meals to people directly, without money creamed off for shareholders.

It would draw on work that has been done by Ian Byrne MP, partnering with Fans Supporting Foodbanks, to fight for a #RighttoFood for all, including through the Grow West Derby community project. It would also draw on emerging thinking about universal basic services, as well as Labour’s 2017 and 2019 manifesto commitments to universal free school meals for all primary students.

And a public free school meals programme, unlike a private sector programme driven by contractual specifications, could be scaled up over time – say, to include secondary school students, as was done in Finland.

This could be the basis for a recovery driven by the community, as opposed to contractors and consultants: a recovery underpinned not by crony corruption, but by care and solidarity.

About the Author

Pascale Robinson works for We Own It and runs the Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign.

Chris Jarvis is a City Councillor in Oxford.

Max Harris is a board member at We Own It and a former advisor to John McDonnell.