The food parcels scandal

The food parcels scandal

“The photo of two blackening bananas, a tomato, two potatoes, three apples, a loaf of bread, about 200g of pasta, two carrots, slices of cheese, two mini-malt loaves, a can of baked beans and three Frubes is one of the defining images of our times,” said Jack Monroe in The Guardian. Posted anonymously on Twitter last week by a struggling mother, it pictured the contents of a food parcel provided by the catering company Chartwells in lieu of a week’s school lunches, for a child forced to stay home. There was some confusion about whether it was meant to represent £30 worth of food or £15, but either way its contents were worth less than £6. This “stark illustration of life in poverty” during the coronavirus pandemic sparked an online outcry. Many other parents shared pictures of similarly paltry “hampers”. The issue was taken up by the campaigning footballer Marcus Rashford. As usually seems to happen when Rashford gets involved, the Government caved in immediately, said The Independent. Boris Johnson branded the boxes “disgraceful”; from this week, parents have been able to claim vouchers instead, allowing them to shop themselves using the full weekly £15.

The package was certainly “pitiful”, said Emma Duncan in The Times. However, “its meanness is less the result of our enthusiasm for starving the poor than the natural consequence of government procurement. Whatever the state buys, it tends to get ripped off.” The Pentagon once famously paid $435 for a hammer and $600 for a toilet seat. It’s easy to see why the scandal “has become so toxic”, said Ruth Sunderland in the Daily Mail. “It looks like a Dickensian narrative of fat cat bosses lining their own pockets by taking food out of the mouths of poor children.” But the reality is “more nuanced”. Chartwells certainly messed up: it has apologised, and won’t charge for parcels delivered that week. But it wasn’t profiteering. It has been whacked by the pandemic, and was scrambling to produce the parcels on a “tiny budget”. The whole thing is more cock-up than conspiracy.

That’s rather the point, said the FT. Like Rashford’s earlier campaigns, the scandal has drawn attention to a major government failing during the pandemic: “an apparent ignorance of how the poorest live and constant need to play catch-up when the reality is pointed out”. Even before Covid, the UK provided less support for the unemployed than comparable nations. After a year out of work, Britons get an average of 17% of their pre-unemployment income. In Germany, it’s 59%, in New Zealand 34%. Those who receive universal credit for the first time have to wait five weeks; many are driven into debt and to food banks. Now the pandemic has “exposed many more to the threadbare nature of Britain’s welfare state, often for the first time”. The Government needs to get ahead of the problem, to fix Britain’s inadequate safety net – and “stop offering open goals to Mr Rashford”.



 

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