Sian Norris digs deeper into private companies providing free school meals to UK’s most vulnerable children
On January 10, a tweet Photo by Roadside Mum of a free school lunch care pack has gone viral on social media for its limited content that even the most innovative chef would struggle to turn into a tasty and nutritious lunch.
During the coronavirus lockdown, children eligible for free school meals are still entitled to receive them, with schools deciding whether or not to provide a voucher or food parcel to affected families.
Roadside Mum was told by her school, who opted to provide parcels, that the pack was for 10 days of lunches. However, in a statement, the company that supplied it later confirmed that it only lasted five days. She was also informed in an email, seen exclusively by Signing timethat there would be no provision for children with dietary needs, with parents being asked to remove foods that their child could not eat.
That company was Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass Group – a multinational foodservice company headquartered in Chertsey, England. As MPs, footballers and celebrity chefs expressed outrage, he released a statement acknowledging that “when schools were closed it caused local problems as we moved from meals to parcels. We listened to parents and thought about how best to use our resources to do more to help.”
‘The message is for the children’ The only value is the percentage of public money that can be turned into private profit’
It said it will now provide free breakfast to families and is ‘further improving our food parcels following the Department for Education’s additional allocation of £3.50 per week per child in line with nutrition guidelines’.
But it wasn’t the first time Chartwells had come under fire during the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in March, schools in Bristol complained that the company was charging £11 per pupil to provide a free school meal care pack consisting mainly of snack bars, crisps, a loaf of bread and butter.
What do we know about Compass Group? And what about other free school meal providers who, like Chartwells, have been in the crosshairs for their care offering?
Big profits, big donations
Since 2016, Compass Group and its subsidiary have won contracts worth £350m for school catering, according to Tussell’s analysis. This makes it by far the biggest winner when it comes to serving school dinners in schools across the UK, in areas such as Dorset, Bristol, North Somerset, Staffordshire, West and East Sussex and Berkshire.
In its 2019 accounts, Compass reported group pre-tax profit of £1.469bn and paid its director Dominic Blakemore a total of £4,659,000 – including his fixed salary, bonuses and other benefits.
Former Compass Group chairman Paul Walsh has strong ties to the Conservative Party, having donated £10,000 to that. In 2012 he was a member of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group and in 2015 he was one of 100 business leaders to sign a letter support the conservatives. For 12 years before joining Compass, Walsh ran beverage giant Diageo. Despite average annual profits of almost £2 billion, an analysis published in 2015 found that Diageo the accounts disclosed only £43m a year or just over 2% of its profits in average UK corporation tax charges.
Compass Group’s contracts go beyond the provision of school meals. Last year the company won a £15m contract to provide site facilities management services to ‘test and trace’ centers as part of the government’s response to coronavirus. The contract was labeled as a “negotiated procedure without prior publication”.
The group is global, operating in the United States where it has faced legal action over its school catering business. In Washington DC, Chartwells was the largest food vendor for the district’s public school system and agreed to pay $19 million in 2015 to settle a lawsuit alleging the company overcharged the city and mismanaged school lunch programs. He also faced a legal challenge in 2012 for overcharging New York schools, paying $18 million to settle the allegations.
According to the website Violation TrackingCompass Group also faced $8.5 million in employment violations, including a 2005 Employment Discrimination case against Chartwells Dining. He was also caught in 2013 horse meat scandal.
The other big winners
Cater Link works alongside Compass Group to provide school meals, with contracts worth £72m since 2016; Aspens Services with contracts worth £75m between 2016 and 2020; and Alliance in Partnership which provides school meals to 400 schools across the country.
Like Chartwells, Cater Link and Alliance in Partnership were criticized at the start of the pandemic for their provision of free school lunch baskets to vulnerable children. A school in North Bristol told School week in March, Cater Link provided its students with 10 slices of bread, five slices of processed cheese, five cookies and five fruits per student.
In March, Alliance in Partnership emailed schools saying it would provide a weekly food basket containing a loaf of sandwich bread, 1.5kg of dry pasta or jacket potatoes, two tins of baked beans, tomato pasta sauce, two tins of fruit and a jar of jam for £11.50 per pupil – products that can be bought for less than £8 from the supermarket.
Alliance in Partnership is owned by Sodexo, which received a £2million government contract to support Testing and Traceability Services. In 2019, Sodexo Holdings Limited recorded profits of £98,925,000 and paid out dividends worth £126,383,000.
Cater Link has also come under fire in this latest scandal over free school lunch packs – a parent received a package container a loaf of bread, three yogurts, a can of beans, tuna, two potatoes, fruit and cheese. Another family received stale bread. In Redcar, mum Kerry Wilks described Cater Link’s care pack as “degrading”.
In 2019, Cater Link recorded profits of £6.2 million. However, the company is part of a complex structure with a total of nine parent companies including its ultimate parent: Cd&R and Wsh Jvco (Uk) Limited. The company, which shares two directors with Cater Link, was incorporated in October 2018 and its 2019 accounts show gross profit of £744.5million.
Cater Link has now pledged to improve its free school lunches.
Within community groupsProvide a lifeline
Chartwells issued a statement promising that “where our food parcels have failed to meet our usual high standards, we will reimburse the costs”. The company also confirmed that “from Monday 15and In January, we will ensure that our food baskets reflect the additional £3.50 funding allocation communicated by the government and that every penny goes towards providing food.”
But the scandal has raised questions about the privatization of school meal provision, instead of relying on public sector providers, and the government’s own guidelines for free school meals – with Labor leader Keir Starmer assignment a picture comparing the Chartwells layout and what the government advises, writing to Boris Johnson that ‘it’s on you’:
The care pack scandal has also re-opened the debate over why, in this crisis, England has chosen not to provide direct financial support to parents and carers, giving families the autonomy to choose the right food for their child.
Cash rather than vouchers or baskets is advocated by the child poverty action group as it offers dignity and privacy to parents.
As Roadside Mum said Signing time“You say children are vulnerable and mums can’t be trusted with £30. And you give them a slice of bendy cheese between two pieces of bread.
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