If you’ve been a hungry child, you know the gnawing pain at the bottom of your stomach when you open the fridge for a snack. Instead of relief, you know what it’s like to be greeted with the backlight of the fridge and freezing cold air, because there’s nothing inside.
If you’ve taught a hungry child, you know the tired look on their face and destructive behaviour in the classroom.
And if you’ve parented a hungry child, you know the pain of not being able to feed your child is unbearable.
But if you are the government, it is your job to step in and give them the resources – and by that I mean the money, not limp food packages – to provide nutritious and filling meals for their children.
Instead, this government has clearly decided that parents who are struggling are not responsible or smart enough to decide how to feed their kids, and that a private company would do a better job.
As the Chartwells fiasco has shown, outsourcing the feeding of hungry children is just another way Britain’s struggling families are treated with indignity and contempt.
Outsourcing the feeding of children to a private company is another undignified addition to an already crooked system.
Instead of giving families £30 worth of food vouchers, social media has been flooded with images from families who have been provided with free school meals in the form of meagre hampers.
From a lone tomato, slices of cheese wrapped in cling film to miserable looking potatoes and solitary tins of baked beans – these hampers send the message loud and clear, if you’re poor you can’t be trusted to feed your children, but they don’t deserve to be well-fed either.
Not only does their lack of substance raise important questions about who is profiting from feeding Britain’s children, but providing families with sub-par provisions removes their agency to shop so much smarter with £30.
Poorer parents know how to feed their children, they know what their children will eat, they know what their children enjoy – Chartwells, evidently, do not. What’s more, they know how to shop to stretch their pennies.
I know this because I saw my mum get creative with food when we struggled with money. She didn’t need someone to decide which sad, cling film wrapped cheese and spaghetti hoops I needed for lunch.
The parents struggling to afford food for their children won’t just be struggling to feed their kids – they will be struggling to feed themselves too. Some will be teaching their children from home, on top of already be trying to navigate the welfare system. Many will be cautious not to miss their Universal Credit calls so their payments aren’t delayed and will be paying bills as late as possible, but not so late that the hot water and internet are cut off.
All this, while being made to feel embarrassed for having to lean on the state for help by faceless online accounts who suggest poorer parents will only spend money on alcohol and drugs.
The welfare system is designed to provoke shame and embarrassment and outsourcing the feeding of children to a private company is another undignified addition to an already crooked system.
The beige and sad looking food packages don’t just send the message to poor families that your children do not deserve to eat: they say your kids are not allowed to eat well – they should be malnourished, because they are poor. Your kids are not allowed to enjoy hot meals – they should be cold, because they are poor. Your kids, because you are poor and struggling, are not allowed to eat colourful and nutritious food. And you, failure of a parent, are not allowed to choose what they eat because you don’t know how. Or worse, can’t be trusted.
Chartwells calling their free school meals provisions “hampers” adds more insult to injury – as though they are a gift, something to be grateful for and accepted with no questions asked, as though they would be filled with condiments and jams.
The government likes to harp on about letting individuals take ownership over their lives, but the refusal to give £30 directly to parents so they can decide what goes on their children’s lunch plate shows their true colours.
Outsourcing feeding children to a Tory-linked firm instead shows that the government only trusts wealthy people with money, and that struggling families deserve to live without dignity.
Tara O’Reilly is a freelance writer.