North East MP's and parents hit out at 'degrading' free school meals parcels

Newcastle North MP Cat McKinnell has been challenging the Prime Minister on food parcels - as the Government announce today they will be bringing back the national voucher scheme from the week commencing 18 January, updated government guidance said.

In a statement, the Department of Education said schools could arrange local vouchers schemes for parents and reimbursing schools up to a value of £15 per pupil per week.

"Reimbursed costs will be backdated to 4 January where schools were asked to close to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers."

Well in a liaison committee today, the Newcastle MP pressed the Prime Minister to develop a strategy ensuring every child can eat.

On the same subject, the Prime Minister said: "you're right to be outraged by images we've seen. With the most notorious pictures - the company responsible for that and others have been hauled over the coals, asked to explain how this has happened, they've apologised, they've reimbursed the schools concerned and pledged not to do it again.

"I should stress the images do not reflect the actual government guidance which is for about double the quantity of food for lunch packs for 5 days - if not more. But it's vital people understand this govt is there to provide support, provide, as we have, an extra £170m for the Covid winter grant scheme, £220m for the holidays activities and food programme, and we're now rolling out again the national free school meal voucher scheme.

"It's obviously up to schools to decide whether to use lunch packs or to use the voucher scheme, about 75% are distributed through vouchers, and so we've increased the value of the voucher as well."

Kerry Wilks, from Redcar, is another parent hitting out.

She received a package at her youngest child's school containing a loaf of bread, three yoghurts, a tin of beans, tuna, two potatoes, four pieces of fruit and two slices of cheese.

"Even the teaching staff were quite embarrassed by giving them out," Ms Wilks, 38, told the PA news agency.

"I think what's really bugged me about it is the fact that there's two pieces of square cheese wrapped in cling film - I just find it so degrading."

Ms Wilks is a widow and acts as a carer for one of her three children, who has autism, so has no income aside from universal credit.

She received vouchers last summer - which she said she also found "degrading" because of the attitudes of some people online and in shops, but preferred that to the packages.

She said: "Going into the school and receiving that - 'oh, your food hamper's here' - well the perception of a hamper that I've got is not what I've received."

She added that she would not be collecting the packages for her two older children, who attend a different school, saying: "It'll cost me more in bus fares to get it than what the food's worth."

According to her local MP, Conservative Jacob Young, catering companies had been provided with £11.50 per student to produce the packages.

Ms Wilks, who said her package had come from Caterlink, added: "If that's £11.50 worth of food, wow."

Caterlink managing director Neil Fuller said: "All children require nutritious food to support their learning, whilst at school, or at home.

"We have listened to feedback from parents and pupils, and in some cases it is clear our parcels have fallen short.

"We have immediately reviewed our current food parcels, enhancing the contents. These enhancements have been funded by our organisation's charitable foundation, WSH Foundation.

"The enhanced parcels will be prepared by a site-based catering team and will be available for distribution in the coming days."

When Ms Wilks was asked how she felt the Government was treating people who receive the parcels, she said: "It's like they've scraped them off their shoe. They're treating them like dirt. It absolutely horrific."

Ms Wilks was one of a number of parents posting images of food packages they had received over the last two days, which were later described by a spokesman for the Prime Minister as "completely unacceptable".

One such image, which showed a £30 package and was supplied by a different company, was estimated to contain just more than £5 worth of food.

MP's across the North East have been reacting to the row over Free School Meals.

The PM's spokesman added: "The Department for Education is looking into this urgently and the minister for children, Vicky Ford, is speaking to the company responsible and they will be making it clear that boxes like this should not be given to families."

Downing Street has said the contents of some free school meal food parcels sent to families is “completely unacceptable."

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “We’re aware of those images circulating on social media, and it is clear that the contents of those food parcels are completely unacceptable.

The spokesman said the national free school meals voucher scheme would shortly be reopened.

Vicky Ford reiterated that she would be “urgently” look into the matter, while also defending the use of parcels instead of vouchers for families in need.

She tweeted: “One of the reasons why some schools have used food parcels rather than vouchers is that it helps keep them in touch with families.

“Very sadly during the pandemic there has been an increase in risk to some children. Do call @NSPCC If you are concerned about a child.”