Sun 17 January 2021

Sian Norris digs deeper into the private companies providing free school meals to the UK’s most vulnerable children

On 10 January, a tweeted photo by Roadside Mum of a free school meals care pack went viral on social media for its scant contents that even the most innovative chef would struggle to make 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 on whether to provide a shopping voucher or food parcel to the relevant families.

Roadside Mum was told by her school, which opted to provide parcels, that the pack was for 10 days’ worth of lunches. However, in a statement, the company which supplied it later confirmed that it was for just five days. She was also told in an email, seen exclusively by Byline Times, that there would be no provision for children with dietary requirements, with parents advised to remove food their child couldn’t eat. 

That company was Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass Group – a multinational food service firm headquartered in Chertsey, England. As MPs, footballers and celebrity chefs expressed their outrage, it released a statement acknowledging that “when schools were closed it caused some local issues as we switched from meals to parcels. We have been listening to parents and working out how we can best use our resources to do more to help”. 

It said it will now be providing breakfast free of charge to families and is “further enhancing our food parcels following the Department for Education’s additional allowance of £3.50 per week per child in line with nutritional guidelines”. 

But this wasn’t the first time that Chartwells has come under fire during the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in March, schools in Bristol complained that the firm was charging £11 per pupil to provide a free school meal care pack that consisted mostly of snack bars, crisps, a loaf of bread and butter. 

What do we know about Compass Group? And what about the other free school meals providers which, like Chartwells, have been in the firing line for their care pack provision? 

Big Profits, Big Donations 

Since 2016, Compass Group and its subsidiary has won contracts worth £350 million for school catering, according to analysis by Tussell. This makes it by far the biggest winner when it comes to serving up school dinners in schools across the UK, in areas including Dorset, Bristol, North Somerset, Staffordshire, West and East Sussex and Berkshire.

In its 2019 accounts, Compass declared a group profit before tax of £1.469 billion and paid its director Dominic Blakemore a total of £4,659,000 – including his fixed salary, bonus and other benefits. 

Former chair of Compass Group, Paul Walsh, has close ties to the Conservative Party, having donated £10,000 to it. Back in 2012, he was a member of then Prime Minister David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group and, in 2015, he was one of 100 business leaders who signed a letter backing the Conservatives. For 12 years before joining Compass, Walsh headed up drinks giant Diageo. Despite average annual profits of almost £2 billion, analysis published in 2015 found that Diageo’s accounts only disclosed £43 million a year or little more than 2% of its profits in average UK corporation tax charges.

Compass Group’s contracts go beyond providing school lunches. Last year, the company was awarded a £15 million deal to deliver site facilities management services to ‘Test and Trace’ centres as part of the Government’s Coronavirus response. The contract was labelled as a “negotiated procedure without prior publication”. 

The group is global, operating in the US where it has faced lawsuits for its school meals operations. 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 law suit alleging that the company overcharged the city and mismanaged the school meals programmes. It also faced a legal challenge in 2012 for overcharging schools in New York, paying $18 million to settle the allegations. 

According to the website Violation Tracker, Compass Group has also faced $8.5 million worth of employment-related offences, including a 2005 employment discrimination case against Chartwells Dining. It was also caught up in 2013’s horse meat scandal. 

The Other Big Winners 

Working alongside Compass Group to provide school meals is Cater Link, with contracts worth £72 million since 2016; Aspens Services with contracts worth £75 million between 2016-20; and Alliance in Partnership which provides school meals for 400 schools across the country. 

Like Chartwells, both Cater Link and Alliance in Partnership came under fire early on in the pandemic for their provision of free school meals hampers for vulnerable children. A school in north Bristol told Schools Week in March that Cater Link provided her students with 10 slices of bread, five processed cheese slices, five biscuits and five pieces of fruit per pupil. 

Back in March, Alliance in Partnership emailed schools to say that it would provide a weekly food hamper containing a loaf of sliced bread, 1.5 kg of dried pasta or jacket potato, two tins of baked beans, a pasta tomato sauce, two tins of fruit and a jar of jam for £11.50 per pupil – products which could be bought for under £8 from the supermarket. 

Alliance in Partnership is owned by Sodexo, which received a £2 million Government contract to support Test and Trace services. In 2019, Sodexo Holdings Limited posted profits of £98,925,000 and paid out dividends worth £126,383,000. 

Cater Link was also under fire in this latest scandal regarding free school meals packs – one parent received a package containing a loaf of bread, three yoghurts, a tin of beans, tuna, two ­potatoes, fruit and cheese. Another family received stale bread. In Redcar, mum Kerry Wilks described the care pack from Cater Link as “degrading”.

In 2019, Cater Link posted 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 record a gross profit of £744.5 million.

Cater Link has now committed to enhancing its free school meals lunches. 

Providing Dignity

Chartwells has released a statement promising that “where our food parcels have not met our usual high standards – we will be refunding the costs”. The company also confirmed that “from Monday 15th January we will ensure our food hampers reflect the additional £3.50 funding allocation communicated by the Government and that every penny goes into the provision of the food”.

But the scandal has raised questions about the privatisation of school meal provision, as opposed to relying on public sector providers, and about the Government’s own guidelines for free school meals – with Labour leader Keir Starmer posting a photo comparing the Chartwells provision and what the Government advises, writing to Boris Johnson that “this is on you”:

Image shared by Keir Starmer on Twitter comparing Chartwells’ care pack and Government guidance

The scandal over the care packs has also re-opened the debate about why in this crisis England has chosen not to provide direct cash assistance to parents and carers which provides families with the autonomy to choose the food that is right for their child.

Cash over vouchers or hampers is advocated by the Child Poverty Action Group as it provides dignity and privacy to parents.

As Roadside Mum told Byline Times: “You’re saying kids are vulnerable and mums can’t be trusted with £30. And you’re giving them a slice of bendy cheese between two bits of bread.”

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