Working class children – a meal ticket for the rich

Protest demanding free school meals

The capitalist state’s response to the pandemic is pushing Britain’s poorest children closer to the brink of starvation. Millions of pounds are being thrown at private companies while millions of children are thrown to the wolves. As thick as thieves, politicians and company executives are in it together, defending a system where private companies tuck into government contracts while food is stolen from the mouths of hungry children.

In England, the families of 1.4 million children – 17.3% of all state school pupils – claimed for free school meals in January 2020. The Food Foundation estimates a further 900,000 children in England have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic. However, two in five children living under the poverty line in Britain are not eligible for free school meals. This includes 1.7 million children in families in low-paid work. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates a further 100,000 schoolchildren are not covered by universal infant free school meals because their families’ immigration status leaves them with no recourse to public funds.

This is the context in which the government has seen fit to wage an ideological war against the public provision of free school meals, turning children into a meal ticket for private companies. During the first lockdown, it outsourced the provision of food vouchers for more than one million children eligible for free school meals to private company Edenred for £234m despite what the National Audit Office called the company’s ‘limited evidence of capability’, without bothering to put the contract out for tender. Edenred were ‘woefully unprepared’, leaving parents waiting for two weeks for vouchers only to find supermarkets would not accept them. 

The government then refused to extend the food voucher scheme over the summer holidays. It was forced into a U-turn  following a relentless campaign by the footballer Marcus Rashford, but by October was up to its old callous tricks, with 321 Conservative MPs voting against providing free school meals to Britain’s poorest children over the October half-term and Christmas holidays. Once again, in the face of a renewed popular campaign spearheaded by Rashford, it was forced to concede an extension of support to the poorest pupils although – once again – children in many low-income working families were excluded from the provisions. In a further vicious twist, the Department for Education has instructed schools not to provide free school meals in the February 2021 half-term, instead saying councils should provide support through the Covid winter grant scheme, even though it was intended to provide additional help on top of free school meals.

Now, in the third lockdown imposed in January 2021, the government has pushed schools to opt for giving food parcels over vouchers in order to hand money over to private companies instead of to families. The Chartwells food parcel scandal exemplifies this. Since 4 January, children eligible for free school meals have had to be fed at home rather than at school. But the government has consistently argued that working class parents cannot be trusted with being given money directly in the form of vouchers because, the ruling class claims, it will be spent on ‘booze and fags’ or, in the words of Conservative MP Ben Bradley, handed over ‘direct to a crack den and a brothel’. But behind this hysterical ideological vitriol lies a cool economic calculation: it is used to justify handing over public cash to privatised school meal providers such as Chartwells. In now infamous pictures shared on social media, it was made clear that Chartwells was creaming off profits as they provided barely £5 worth of snacks, scraps of vegetables and tins of beans in place of the £30 worth of food intended to last a child for ten days. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of working class parents are going hungry to ensure their children have food on the table.

Chartwells is owned by the British company Compass Group, the world’s biggest catering firm and the biggest school meals caterer in Britain. Its chairman Paul Walsh was a donor to the Conservative Party. While Compass’s earnings have taken a hit from the pandemic – income before tax fell by 85% in the year to 30 September 2020 to £210m – CEO Dominic Blakemore (salary £1.2m) expects profitability to be restored by next year, mainly on the back of lucrative contracts in school catering. In the meantime, it has been bailed out by its friends, with the Bank of England handing the company £600m from its Covid-19 corporate financing facility. 

Clearly, it does not matter how ill equipped companies are to fulfil a contract, nor how many times they utterly fail in provision: they are the monopolies that the government cannot allow to fail in shoring up British capitalism, so they will continue to be awarded contract after lucrative contract. 

It is estimated that the number of children in poverty in Britain will rise to 5.2 million by 2022, while analysts expect Compass Group’s pre-tax ‘earnings’ to recover fully by 2023 to more than £1.6bn. These contradictions between private profit and public deprivation lie at the heart of the current crisis. This is capitalism writ large. We have to fight it.

Mark Moncada

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 280 February/March 2021