LONDON – The food package, spread out on a carpet, included a can of beans, an assortment of fruits, vegetables, snacks, and sliced bread and cheese – amenities of a government program that offers low-income students free lunches.
But when pictures of the packages delivered to students' homes as lockdowns had closed schools across England this week, and circulated on social media this week, they were outright condemned by parents and anti-hunger activists like the football player Marcus Rashford.
The portions were meager, raising concerns about whether children were getting adequate nutrition during the coronavirus pandemic, and the government had overpaid for it, critics said.
“Government money was charged £ 30,” or more than $ 40, said a parent, who posted a much-shared photo to Twitter of a package she said would take 10 days. Compared to items in her local supermarket, she said, "I bought this for £ 5.22."
Chartwells, a contractor responsible for providing the packed lunches distributed on Twitter, said on Tuesday that the photo contained enough for five days of school lunches, not 10, and that the cost for it, including distribution costs, totaled about $ 14. .
But that wasn't enough to dampen outrage, and on Wednesday the government said it would restore voucher programs next week that would allow parents to buy meals for themselves.
Under the program, schools that received funding to provide lunch to lower-income students were given incentives to send packed lunches to their homes. According to the Department of Education website, the food should be used to prepare "healthy lunches" and for students on "special diets."
The mother whose photo went viral said she welcomed the news of the turnaround. “Most people can get a lot more miles from the vouchers than anything put in the bags and boxes,” the woman, identified only as Lisa, said on the Conversation's leading radio station in Great Britain.
On Monday, Chartwells said it would reimburse costs "where our food packages did not meet our usual high standards" and "apologize to those affected". A free breakfast would be included in packages shipping from January 25, they added.
Mr Rashford, who plays for Manchester United and has been a driving force behind free meal programs during the pandemic, called the packages "unacceptable" and said Prime Minister Boris Johnson had promised him a "full assessment of the supply chain".
"These food packages do not meet the standards we have set and we have made it clear to the company concerned that this is a shame," said Johnson. said on Twitter.
"The photos shared on social media last night and today are completely unacceptable and do not reflect the high standard of free school meals that we are expected to receive to children," said Vicky Ford, minister for children and families.
But some critics accused the government of blaming contractors, saying it was a sign of wider struggles marginalized people were facing Britain deep in another lockdown.
"It's really shocking that profiteering is taking place in this crisis," said Kath Dalmeny, CEO of Sustain, a food and agriculture charity. She added that there was a lack of transparency on how large companies were winning contracts and that the government had not sufficiently recognized that low-income families would struggle to get food during the lockdown.
The free meal plan was offered students from households on government benefits, including those who earn less than £ 7,400 per year after tax.
But families earning above that threshold also struggle to get food on the table, Ms. Dalmeny said.
“There is a deep political bias among our government against giving money to people – even in a pandemic,” she added. "Unfortunately, it is the children who ultimately suffer."
The incident was part of a pattern where private companies got government contracts that cut back on quality to maximize profits, said The Good Law Project, an administrative watchdog. Mr. Johnson's government has awarded billions of dollars in pandemic-related contracts to companies with political connections, no relevant experience and histories of controversy, often outperforming competitors.
“There is a culture where the central government is simply not interested in providing quality services to the population,” said Jolyon Maugham, the group's director, adding that the country needed more ways to seek accountability and transparency.
Approximately 1.4 million children claimed free school meals in the 2019-2020 school year government figures.
Of the photos, Ms. Dalmeny said they went viral because they spoke to people's hearts. "If you imagine feeding a child with it week after week."