A mother who posted a photo on social media of a food parcel she received has told of the “sense of sadness” she felt on seeing what it contained.
The mother, who wants to be anonymous, told the BBC: “As I unpacked that food parcel… and looked at the contents, it felt very sad and depressing.”
Chartwells, the firm which supplied the parcel, has apologised.
Asked about photos of the parcels, the health secretary said the contents were “clearly inadequate”.
Matt Hancock told BBC Breakfast that when the issue surfaced, colleagues in the Department for Education “were on it straight away” and spoke to the company, which “apologised and it got sorted out”.
He said: “Everyone is collectively sorting out a problem very rapidly”, adding that the food parcels have “got to be decent meals”.
Food parcels are being sent to pupils in England who would normally be eligible for free school meals while schools are closed during lockdown.
A row broke out after the mother, using the online name Roadside Mum, posted a photo on Twitter of two carrots, two potatoes, a tin of baked beans and a small range of other food items, which she calculated to have cost about £5. The post prompted others to complain about the quality and quantity of the food they had received in similar parcels.
The mother, who is disabled, had thought it was supposed to last 10 school days and should have been worth £30.
She told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday: “As I unpacked that food parcel in my living room and looked at the contents, it felt very sad and very depressing.
“One of my children came in and saw me laying this out on the floor, and I said I was going to picture it because it didn’t look like a lot.
“I could see the child’s realisation that this is what I’ve been given to eat for a week and the sense of sadness.
“Where has the rest of the food gone? This is meant to be a week’s food. Why is it so mean?”
Chartwells, the company that provided the parcel, said it was actually only intended to last one school week and had cost £10.50 for food, packing and distribution.
The firm said it had been required to provide thousands of food parcels “at extremely short notice” – but acknowledged it was insufficient and apologised.
The initial social media images of food parcels drew widespread criticism.
Footballer Marcus Rashford, a high-profile campaigner for children on free school meals, shared images of some parcels online, calling them “not good enough”.
After a meeting with the company, he said: “One thing that is clear is that there was very little communication with the suppliers that a national lockdown was coming.
“We must do better. Children shouldn’t be going hungry on the basis that we aren’t communicating or being transparent with plans. That is unacceptable.”
Labour’s leader Sir Keir Starmer tweeted that the food appeared to be “woefully inadequate” and said it needed “sorting immediately”.
And Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner, called on companies to provide “real food and real amounts that will really help families”.
Meanwhile, Dr Max Davie, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said the contents of the food parcels were “not nutritionally sufficient for children and young people”.
In a statement on Tuesday, Children’s minister Vicky Ford said that catering companies must “urgently” improve the quality of food parcels being sent out, to ensure eligible children received “a healthy, nutritious lunch that will give them the fuel they need to focus on learning at home”.
Ms Ford said the food parcels being shared online were “completely unacceptable” and “do not reflect the high standard of free school meals we expect to be sent to children”.
She added: “Chartwells has rightly apologised and admitted the parcel in question was not good enough. I met their managing director earlier today and he has assured me they have taken immediate action to stop further deliveries of poor-quality parcels.”
She said anyone with evidence of problems should provide details to the Department of Education (DfE) for investigation.
The government will set out further details on Wednesday of how best to report this and other matters, she said.
Chartwells, which is owned by Compass group, has pledged to refund costs where food parcels have not met its standards, and to contact schools to understand where shortages have occurred, while also apologising to anyone affected.
It has also said the firm will further enhance its food parcels following the Department for Education’s additional allowance of £3.50 per week per child, in line with nutritional guidelines.
Source: Department for Education
The DfE, which has clear guidelines for parcels, has said it will open a national scheme to provide supermarket vouchers via an online portal – similar to that of the first lockdown – “as soon as possible”.
During the current lockdown, schools in England have been told to continue providing free meals for those who are learning at home, and have been urged to use their usual caterers to offer food parcels.
If schools cannot provide parcels, they can consider other arrangements which might include vouchers for local shops and supermarkets.
In Wales, the provision of free school meals during the holidays has been extended by a year, and the Northern Ireland Executive made a pledge in November to provide free school meals in holidays until Easter 2022.
In Scotland – where holiday provision is currently promised up to Easter 2021 – both the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives have pledged to fund free school meals for all primary school pupils during term-time and holidays if they win the 2021 Scottish election.