Bedford MP Mohammad Yasin has joined parents and the food poverty campaigner, Marcus Rashford, to call on the government to replace food packages with vouchers for children affected by school closures.
It comes after stories emerged on social media from parents criticising the quality and quantity of food packages provided for children eligible for free school meals.
As an example, a much-shared photo by @roadsidemum on Twitter showed £30 worth of food provided by Compass-owned school catering firm, Chartwell.
She calculated that the true retail value of the food was £5.22.
Schools in Bedford are individually responsible for free school meal provision during term time.
In an email to the Bedford Independent, a spokesperson for Mark Rutherford School confirmed that their in-house catering team had provided 190 food parcels delivered to families.
Each parcel is worth in the region of £15 and includes a combination of bread, ham, cheese, beans or hoops, different fresh fruit, yogurt and some homemade biscuits (subject to supply).
The government provides schools with funding to cover benefits-related free school meals.
Schools can claim for additional funding of £3.50 per week for each eligible pupil receiving food parcel provision at home.
One parent of a child at Mark Rutherford School told the Bedford Independent that she did not think the quality or quantity of the food parcel represented value for money.
She said: “When we were given vouchers we were able to get a lot more food for the same value as the food parcel.”
Bedford MP, Mohammad Yasin, shared his concerns over food parcels on his Facebook page this morning and was inundated with responses from parents.
One mother got in touch with the MP, saying: “Following your Facebook post this morning regarding free school meals, I received the following from my daughter’s primary school on Friday: Jacket potato, small tin of beans, two small pots of cheese, a cheese sandwich, two small bags of chopped carrots, one piece of cake and one biscuit.
“Not even one day’s worth of food.”
Mr Yasin said: “There’s been a huge response to my Facebook post today from families that otherwise would have wrongly felt too ashamed to get in touch and complain about the food parcels they were receiving.
“The Government must urgently fix these problems and get the national voucher scheme up and running as soon as possible.
“It’s been obvious for weeks that the infection rates were soaring and school closures were a distinct possibility so they should have had a contingency plan.”
Mr Yasin had sympathy for schools who he said were doing their best under difficult circumstances to put food parcels together at virtually no notice.
“I will be calling on the Government to trust parents to buy the food that is right for their children and for transparency on what is being offered in their contracted #FreeSchoolMeal parcels to ensure children are able to eat a well-balanced diet whilst trying to engage with homeschooling,” he said.
Food poverty campaigner and Manchester United striker, Marcus Rashford, criticised the packages, saying: “Then imagine we expect the children to engage in learning from home. Not to mention the parents who, at times, have to teach them who probably haven’t eaten at all so their children can.
“We MUST do better. This is 2021.”
Bedford Free School (BFS) and Castle Newnham School are two schools in Bedford Borough who have opted to give families food vouchers.
Jenny Hill, chief financial officer at Advantage Schools, which runs BFS, said: “[We] made the decision to give supermarket vouchers of £15 per week to eligible children rather than food packages, as we don’t think it is possible to provide a sufficient level of food to suit each child’s needs within the confines of a standard weekly food package.
“We think that issuing supermarket vouchers will allow us to help more families, and in a way that better suits each family’s own circumstances.”
The school confirmed that it aimed to maintain this approach for as long as schools are closed during this lockdown.
Likewise, Castle Newnham have provided parents with vouchers that can be redeemed at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Aldi, Iceland and McColls.
Federation Principal, Ruth Wilkes said: “Children in school who are entitled to a free school meal are still being provided with a hot meal each day.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education has confirmed that will be investigating the situation. They said: “We have clear guidelines and standards for food parcels, which we expect to be followed.
“Parcels should be nutritious and contain a varied range of food.”
A Bedford Borough Council Spokesperson said: “We want to ensure that all food parcels provided by schools are meeting the needs of families and will work with schools where concerns have been raised to make sure that this is the case.
“We did this during the previous school closures are will do so again whenever needed.”
“In addition Bedford Borough Council contracts Caterlink to provide a school meal service for 36 local schools. During periods of lockdown Caterlink has continued to provide a school meal service for those pupils still attending school.
“Caterlink has also provided food parcels for pupils eligible for benefits-related Free School Meals (FSM), who have been unable to attend school throughout the pandemic. Food parcels are charged to schools at the same price as in-school FSMs and contain food to prepare 10 lunches, accompanied by a suggested menu.
“Caterlink are committed to providing all children with nutritious food to support their learning, whilst at school, or at home. Food parcels include; tuna, pasta, eggs, jacket potatoes, bread, cheese, fresh fruit and vegetables together with other items.”
Edited on 13.1.21 at 12:10 to include comment from Bedford Borough Council