Last week, pictures of inadequate food parcels flooded Twitter and other social media sites, highlighting once again the government’s failure to provide free school meals for children throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
This marks the second government shortcoming this year in free school meals provision (the first, of course, being shamed by a footballer into feeding children over the school holidays), but just one in a long line of the shortcomings over the last decade of austerity. The current hamper situation is the government’s alternative to the £15 food vouchers available for free school meals children through some Local Education Authorities (LEAs). It is this £15 figure which has caused the largest controversy, as the food delivered in the parcels was worth only about a fiver for two weeks worth of school dinners compared to the £30 available through the voucher scheme.
In response to the online backlash, Chartwells, the company behind the fiasco, claimed that they had only received a £10.50 budget per meal, including labour and distribution, and that the parcel pictured was only intended to last five days. This discrepancy regarding number of days and value does not in any way excuse the inadequacy of the provided meals, however, but reflects the ongoing demonisation of the working class which has resulted in this failure of the system.
Though LEAs could provide free school meals children with the aforementioned £15 vouchers this lockdown, the government pushed schools towards a parcel first approach. This pressure reflects the strongly held belief that working class parents cannot be trusted as they’d likely choose alcohol or cigarettes over their own children’s dinners if provided with food vouchers.
Both MPs and members of the public took to social media to display this attitude in the response to the food parcel backlash with many users suggesting that if parents could be trusted to use the vouchers responsibly, or had the good sense to pull themselves up their bootstraps and simply no longer require free school meals, their children would not have to go hungry as a result of the parcel scheme.
In the context of free school meals, this demonisation of working class parents can be traced back to Thatcher’s cuts to the programme in the 1970s. The underlying message is simple: the free market enables every person to reach the utmost of their potential, and those who are unable to obtain class mobility and economic success have not been failed by the system, but are themselves failures. As such, if the poor cannot feed their children, it must be their own fault. Either they don’t know how to budget, or they don’t know how to cook, and successfully feeding their hungry children is only condoning their laziness; any answer seems preferable to admitting that the meritocracy we’ve been promised in the UK may just turn out to be a myth.
In a year that’s upped the number of free school meals children by an estimated 900,000 and marks the first time Unicef has had to feed children in the UK, this attitude could not be more abhorrent. Justifying this failure of free school meals provisions in any form only highlights our society’s deeply held assumptions about working class morality and willfully ignores the fact that feeding our nation’s poorest children should be a jointly shouldered responsibility. It seems the only way we can prevent this from happening again is by agreeing that there should be such a thing as a society, as opposed to a collection of individuals.
Featured image via Unsplash