Clearing up some of the confusion over free school meals

19 January 2021

Last week, social media was full of images of food parcels sent to parents to feed their children.

Ordinarily, state schools in England provide meals to eligible children free of charge, including children whose families receive certain benefits, and all children in reception, year one and year two.

During the national lockdown, when most children are not in school, schools have been told to continue supporting children by delivering food parcels or food vouchers. Children who are still attending school during lockdown and are eligible for free school meals are still expected to be served these in school as normal. 

While there is no doubt that some of the food parcels delivered to children at home fell short of government guidelines, it’s worth noting some of the confusion that has surrounded this story. 

The image which drew attention to the issue was posted on Twitter, showing what was said to be food provided to feed a child for 10 days. 

The post has been shared over 30,000 times at the time of writing, and the image has been used to illustrate numerous articles on the story.

Following this, the company which had provided the parcel, Chartwells, said in a statement that the parcel was to provide five days of free school lunches while apologising that the “quantity has fallen short in this instance.”

However, according to an email shared with Full Fact by the parent who received this parcel, parents were told the parcel would contain enough food for ten days.

What should be provided?

While children are not in school during the lockdown, schools are still required to provide meals for eligible pupils, which the Department for Education (DfE) says could include a food parcel or vouchers. 

DfE recommends parcels are provided in line with guidance published by the Lead Association for Catering in Education (LACA).

LACA’s example parcel for one child for five days, at the time the picture of the Chartwells parcel went viral, included:

  • 1 loaf of bread
  • 2 baking potatoes
  • 1 cucumber
  • 3 large tomatoes
  • 1 tin of sweetcorn
  • 5 portions of fresh fruit
  • 2 items from the following: 1 pack of sliced cooked meat, or vegetarian alternative, 1 tin of meat or tuna, or six eggs
  • 200g of cheese
  • 1 tin of baked beans
  • 500g of plain yoghurt or 3 yoghurt pots
  • 1 litre of semi-skimmed milk

The Chartwells parcel pictured was inadequate. It did not appear to include the two protein-based items, the sweetcorn or the milk recommended in a five day parcel. The fresh vegetables provided were two carrots and one tomato, instead of the example three tomatoes and one cucumber. The parcel also included some dried pasta and two malt loaf snack bites.

Recently the LACA guidance has changed, removing the litre of milk per week, but adding a pack of pasta and jar of pasta sauce to its example fortnightly parcel. LACA says that the “guidance is currently under review and in the process of being updated”. Chartwells has now said it intends to start adding free breakfast items to parcels, but schools are not required to provide food to feed children for the entire day, nor are they required to provide food to feed the family members of these children.

However some posts may have suggested this was the case.

For example, a post shared 8,000 times claims the parcel provided by Chartwells contained only around 3,000 calories, while a child needs about 1,500-2,000 calories per day.

But these meal parcels are not intended to provide all meals for a child.

How much does a parcel cost?

Another point of potential confusion surrounds how much these parcels actually cost, and what money could have been provided instead.

The original tweet mentioned above claims the parcel was “issued instead of £30 vouchers”. 

This doesn’t mean the food pictured cost £30, as suggested by certain articles. Chartwells said it charged £10.50 for this particular parcel, including packing and distribution.

What that £30 refers to is the fact that the government has provided extra funding for schools who provide vouchers to feed children, to the value of £15 per eligible child per week.

One detail here is that schools are not necessarily limited to providing a voucher of £15 per week. 

This money can be in addition to what schools receive for free school meal funding. 

Free school meals are ordinarily funded through central funding for schools, rather than a specific grant, which amounts to around £11.50 per eligible child per week. 

Schools providing vouchers locally are able to claim back an additional £15 per pupil per week from the government and could, in theory, provide vouchers for more than £15 per week to parents.

That’s not to say that schools could, in practice, just pass on all their funding for free school meals to parents in the form of vouchers. There may be some existing staff or supplier costs that need to be met out of that funding. The National Voucher Scheme launched in March 2020, and recently relaunched, does provide families with a £15 voucher per pupil. 

If schools choose instead to provide lunch parcels themselves, or via a supplier, they are able to claim an additional £3.50 per eligible pupil per week.

It is unclear why the government has provided so much more funding to schools choosing to issue vouchers as opposed to parcels, especially given that the government had, until the past few days, recommended a “food parcel first approach”. This advice has now been removed.

The Labour Party has written to children’s minister Vicky Ford for an explanation of the discrepancy.  

Update 27 January 2021

This article has been updated to include mention of the email received by the parent posting the original tweet saying the package was for 10 days.

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