Mother claim catering firm sent mouldy veg in free school meals box

Catering firm at centre of free school meals scandal is slammed by two mothers who say they were sent boxes containing ‘inedible’ fruit and vegetables covered in MOULD

  • Chartwells came under attack last month over paltry food packages last month 
  • And now, two mothers are claiming the dispute over food parcels is far from over
  • Kerry Elson from Yatton, Somerset, shared picture of mould-coated tomatoes
  • She blasted food as ‘inedible’ and said it ‘just wasn’t acceptable’ from Chartwells 

The catering firm at the centre of the free school meals scandal has been slammed by two mothers who claim they were sent boxes containing mould-covered vegetables and rotten fruit.

Chartwells came under attack last month after campaigning footballer Marcus Rashford shared a picture of a paltry food parcel sent to parents of children on free school meals to cover at least five days of lunches during lockdown.

And now, two mothers are claiming the scandal – which Boris Johnson called an ‘insult to families’ – is far from over.

Kerry Elson from Yatton, Somerset, shared a picture of the mould-coated tomatoes, rotten pears and dried-out carrots provided by the firm.

She blasted the food as ‘inedible’ and ‘unacceptable’ from Chartwells – run by £24.8billion-earning Compass Group UK & Ireland whose chairman was until recently a Tory donor.

The catering firm at the centre of the free school meals scandal has been slammed by mother Kerry Elson (pictured with her daughter Darcey) who claims she was sent boxes containing mould-covered vegetables and rotten fruit

Kerry from Yatton, Somerset, shared a picture of the mould-coated tomatoes (left), rotten pears (right) and dried-out carrots provided by the firm

Full-time mother-of-four Kerry said: ‘It was really bad, there was some [dried] food like a small bag of pasta and that was fine – but the rest was inedible. 

‘There was potatoes and they were sprouting and squidgy, they were the worst. The tomatoes had mould on them and the onions did too.

‘The bananas were brown, they were gone – and the pears were so soft I could put my finger through them.’

Kerry has now set up a Facebook support page with her sister-in-law Ellis Elson so parents who rely on school meals can come together and share their experiences. 

Kerry added: ‘We set this up because we felt so passionately that if we are suffering, other parents are suffering, and is it fair that parents have to choose between feeding their children rotten food or not feeding them at all?

Full-time mother-of-four Kerry (pictured with her son Kingsley) said: ‘It was really bad, there was some [dried] food like a small bag of pasta and that was fine – but the rest was inedible’

Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford (pictured with his mother Melanie at a food bank last year) has been campaigning for free school meals

Kerry blasted the food (some pictured) as ‘inedible’ and ‘unacceptable’ from Chartwells – run by £24.8billion-earning Compass Group UK & Ireland whose chairman was until recently a Tory donor

Kerry is mother to Kody, 13, (right) Jenson, nine, (middle) Darcey, six, (left) and Kingsley, one

Meal scheme will switch for half-term

 The free meal system for school pupils will change over the February half term – as the government tries to balance its books by using a different department’s funding for the food.

In a switchover that has the potential to spark some administration issues, meals for those that need it will continue, but paid for from a different area.

Currently the Department for Education are in charge of providing cash for school meals during the coronavirus outbreak in term-times.

But when half term arrives something called the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, which comes from the DWP, will supply the money. It has £170m of funds.

It goes to councils who pay it forward to a number of different schemes to help families in need of assistance.

That includes extending free school meals support to those eligible when schools closed during lockdown.

This Covid Winter Grant was in place over Christmas and can see food parcels and vouchers go to those who need it.   

‘It’s completely unacceptable, I would not feed this to any of my children.

‘Chartwells seem to reckon they are improving, but Christ – I dread to think what it was like before.’ 

Kerry is mother to Kody, 13, Jenson, nine, Darcey, six, and Kingsley, one.   

Her sister-in-law Ellis told the BBC: ‘You pick a pear up and put your thumb through it. It almost feels like our children are being punished. 

‘To think that someone is hand selecting these items to put into the box, to distribute to low-income families, there is no care or thought put into that.’

A spokesperson for Chartwells said: ‘Unfortunately it is impossible to tell whether the pictures provided are from one of our parcels.

‘It is important to stress that if a parent is ever unhappy with what they receive they can call our helpline and receive a replacement parcel within 24 hours.

‘We have substantially enhanced our lunch parcels in the last three weeks, and are also providing free breakfast too.

‘We have supplied over 30,000 parcels in the last two weeks and have been receiving lots of positive feedback from parents.’ 

The row over free meals was sparked by a mother called Sarah – RoadsideMum on Twitter – who originally said a sparse package from suppliers Chartwells was supposed to be worth £30 and last ten days. 

She accepted the groceries had only been intended to last her child seven days, but the firm nevertheless apologised and admitted the parcel was not up to standard. 

The Prime Minister last month assured senior MPs that Chartwells had been ‘hauled over the coals’.

Answering a question from Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon at the Liaison Committee, he said: ‘You are right to be obviously outraged by the images that we have seen.

‘And the companies in question – or certainly one of the most notorious pictures, the company responsible for that, and others – have been hauled over the coals and asked to explain how this has happened.

‘They have apologised and they have reimbursed the schools concerned and pledged not to do it again.

The food parcel that caused the scandal contained just £5.22 of food and sparked an apology 

‘I should stress that the images did not reflect the actual Government guidance which is for about double the quantity of food for lunch packs for five days that you have seen, if not more.’ 

Home Secretary Priti Patel called for Chartwells to be punished at the time, declaring ‘they should be ashamed of themselves’ over the packages.

The Home Secretary described the food package from the firm an ‘appalling display’ that was ‘totally unacceptable’.

Chartwells later revealed an image of how its five-day school meals hamper should look.

Outrage over the food parcels last month prompted a reintroduction of the more popular vouchers from January 18.

Schools can choose between the vouchers or the food parcels. 

But even the vouchers are feared to have caused further problems – after concerns having to print them out at home to spend could be difficult for families with no equipment.

Amy Weldon, 24, told how she had been given her daughter’s food parcel  in a bin bag. It is not clear if the parcel was sent by Chartwells

Katie Newton, from Harrogate, got a food parcel for Rylan Blakey which was not enough

It held two sandwiches, two potatoes, grated cheese, yoghurts, one apple and an orange. It is not clear if the parcel was sent by Chartwells

Following pictures of sub-par food parcels, Mrs Patel said: ‘The vouchers scheme is coming back in place on January 18 – quite frankly that scheme is just so, so important.

‘I do think the company that was involved in that appalling display of food parcels should be ashamed of themselves, quite frankly.

‘It’s totally unacceptable and it is right that the Government is investigating them. I personally think that some action should be taken against that company,’ she added in an interview with Holly Willoughby and Philip Schofield on This Morning.

How much should the free school meals really be worth? 

Free school meal allowances are usually £2.34 per pupil per day, an additional £3.50 per seven days has been added in lockdown, equalling £15.20 a week.

The Government has told schools to work with their school catering team or provider to make up the food parcels, especially if kitchens are open.

Unlike in the first lockdown, vouchers are considered only after every effort to provide the supply boxes have been exhausted.

The government guidance suggests ‘you can consider other local arrangements, which might include vouchers for local shops and supermarkets’.

School costs of providing the vouchers can then be reimbursed by the government to the amount of £15 per week.

A school catering source told MailOnline: ‘Staff haven’t experienced anything like this before. They are working through a pandemic to make the food boxes for the parents some don’t even collect them.

‘For those in school staff were expecting 120 children from the key worker parents and vulnerable children for free school meals still, 40 turned up.’

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced he would be reintroducing the £15 tokens in January.

But some require them to be printed at home, causing another headache for poorer families without access to that kind of equipment. 

Footballer Marcus Rashford – who has campaigned for free school meals – said: ‘One thing I touched on with the Prime Minister was ways to course correct on the voucher scheme.

‘If families can’t access food consistently likelihood is they do not have access to a printer to print the vouchers at home. They agreed to look into this.’   

The Government faced further criticism last moth over plans for children to get their free supplies from a different scheme.

Currently money paying for parcels and lunches comes from a Department for Education initiative.

But new guidance on the free lockdown packages has said they will stop in the February half term and families will need to use the DWP-administered Covid Winter Grant Scheme through their local council.

It has sparked fears from Unions that the process could be mired in red tape and run the risk of children going hungry. 

Meals campaigner Mr Rashford had however praised the initiative when it was announced last year.

After the £170million grant was revealed in November he had said ‘I very much welcome the steps that have been taken to combat child food poverty in the UK’.

The new criticism is understood to have stunned ministers and No 10.

Government heads and Downing Street have insisted the scheme will crossover with the current package to ensure no-one misses out. 

Union bosses slammed the project , fearing it would leave children hungry. 

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: ‘This is an unnecessary logistical nightmare.

‘The Government has, once again, revealed its total disregard for those hardest hit by the ongoing health pandemic.

‘After a year in which the stark inequalities faced by millions of children and young people has been at the forefront of the minds of the public, the ugly spectre of holiday hunger is now looming yet again.’

These items were sent out to parents in Medway, Kent, from a school to feed their children last month

St Francis de Sales Catholic Junior School in Merseyside were giving out these parcels last month

This parcel was received by an angry mother who had no idea how to make meals from it

How many children get them? What should they include? Who compiled the parcels? Free school meals explained 

Have children been receiving school meals during the pandemic?

Yes. The Government said schools in England should provide meal options for all eligible pupils, including vulnerable children and the children of key workers, regardless of whether they are being educated in the classroom or at home.

Meals should be available free of charge to all infant pupils and those who meet the benefits-related free school meals eligibility criteria.

It said schools may consider working with their school catering team or an external food provider to provide good quality lunch parcels to eligible pupils who are at home.

Around 1.3million children in England are eligible for free school meals.

What has Marcus Rashford got to do with it?

The England star became known for food poverty campaigning during the pandemic, forcing a Government U-turn on offering free school meal vouchers over the summer holidays.

The 23-year-old has drawn widespread praise for highlighting the issue, with his campaigning also resulting in the Government back-tracking to announce free meals would be provided to disadvantaged children over the Christmas holidays too.

He described the food offerings shown in pictures that emerged this week as ‘just not good enough’ and called for the system to be fixed ‘quickly’.

What did the pictures of food on social media show?

An image posted on Twitter by a mother called Sarah showed the food she had received all laid out, and she wrote: ‘2 days jacket potato with beans, 8 single cheese sandwiches, 2 days carrots, 3 days apples, 2 days soreen, 3 days frubes. Spare pasta & tomato. Will need mayo for pasta salad.

‘Issued instead of £30 vouchers. I could do more with £30 to be honest.’ 

Who put the parcel together and have they explained their efforts?

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said it has been made clear to Chartwells, the company that provided the pictured parcel, as well as the entire education food sector, that such behaviour ‘will not be tolerated’.

Chartwells said the picture shows five days of free school lunches (not 10 days) and the charge for food, packing and distribution was £10.50 and not the £30 suggested by Sarah.

The company said they are very sorry that the quantity has ‘fallen short in this instance’, later adding that they will be adding breakfast into their parcels from January 25, which will be free to schools for all children eligible for meals.

Rashford, who said he had reached out to Chartwells, tweeted that they had clarified that they were not the exclusive supplier of free school meals across the UK.

What is a food parcel expected to contain?

The Government website provides a link to a webpage which sets out some general principles for putting together a food parcel.

It includes a list of food items billed as an example parcel for one child for five days.

The list includes: one loaf of bread or pack of rolls/10-inch wraps, two baking potatoes, one cucumber, three large tomatoes or one pack of cherry tomatoes, one standard tin of sweetcorn in water, five portions of fresh fruit (eg apples, satsumas, bananas) or three portions of fresh fruit and one tin fruit in juice (eg pears, peaches, fruit cocktail), two items from the following: one pack of sliced cooked meat (eg chicken, ham or vegetarian alternative) or one tin of meat or one tin of tuna in water or six eggs, 200g block of cheese or three cheese portions, one tin baked beans, one 500g pot plain low-fat yoghurt or three individual serving yoghurt pots, one litre / two pints semi-skimmed milk.

Can families receive vouchers instead?

Yes, soon. Mr Williamson said the national voucher scheme for free school meals will relaunch next week, after education leaders, campaigners and MPs called on the Government to roll out the programme urgently.

People will receive an email from supplier Edenred by January 14, advising on how to either reset their password or activate their account for the first time.

They will then receive an email confirming when they can order vouchers during the week commencing January 18.

Once families have received their voucher, they will be able to redeem them in store by either presenting a paper copy or showing it on a smartphone.

What about pupils in other parts of the UK?

The governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make their own provisions for school lunch funding.

In Scotland, local authorities and schools use different approaches depending on their individual circumstances and in response to local needs, including cash payments to families of eligible children; supermarket vouchers; home deliveries or through attendance at school.

In Wales, councils are able to make a payment to cover the provision of school meals where needed.

In Northern Ireland, a payment will be made on Friday January 15 to the parents and guardians of all children, including vulnerable children and children of key workers, who are entitled to free schools meals for the period of January 4 to January 22.

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