What It's Like To Actually Live On A Free School Meal 'Hamper'

Parents are going hungry so they can feed their children due to the "ridiculous" food parcels they have received.

Struggling families are being forced to cut back on spending after receiving meagre food parcels meant to replace the free school meals voucher scheme.

On Monday, one mother posted an image of the food she had been given, containing one loaf of bread, a small bag of pasta, one tin of beans, a few pieces of fruit and little else. The parcel was estimated to contain just £5 worth of food. The provider, Chartwells, apologised on Tuesday evening.

Her post triggered a slew of similar posts and pictures shared by other parents of similarly sparse food packages, prompting Downing Street to admit the parcels were “completely unacceptable”.

Furloughed waitress Lexi Ellison, from North Shields, was horrified at first by the contents of a so-called “hamper” that was meant to feed her son Jacob for 10 days.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous. I couldn’t feed my hungry seven-year-old for even two or three days with what I was given,” she told HuffPost UK.

Lexi Ellison and her son, Jacob
Lexi Ellison and her son, Jacob

While some of her friends’ children had been given hamburgers and blocks of cheese in their parcels, her son had received just one loaf of white bread, a packet of spaghetti, a can of tuna (“which he doesn’t eat”), two eggs, two potatoes, some cherry tomatoes and “mouldy” carrots, three pears, two apples and two oranges – as well as one litre of milk.

“The main problem is there’s no substance to it. Whereas some people have got pasta sauce to make with the pasta, I can’t make a specific meal because there are items missing from any meal I could make. How can I make a sandwich for my child with no butter or cheese?”

In order to make sure Jacob is properly fed over those 10 days, Ellison estimates she will have to spend an extra £17 to £20 on beans, pasta sauce and cheese offcuts from the supermarket. The alternative, she says, would be “heartbreaking”.

““The bottom line is that children are starving – and that’s not okay.””

“He’d probably think it was a joke at first, or a test or challenge and that he’d get a prize at the end of it,” she said. “But when I’d explained it to him, he would get upset and emotional and he’d want to give the food to other children. He knows that everyone here is just one paycheck away from the dozens of people you see sleeping in doorways with their kids.”

She continued: “If I were to just feed him on that [parcel], he’d have a couple of slices of dried toast for breakfast. I could make some scrambled eggs with the two eggs and mashed potato with the two potatoes and some milk – it wouldn’t taste good but I could manage it. Even then that’s only three days of food. And then I’d have to see my son cry with hunger.”

Ellison said she “regularly” went without food so Jacob and her 14-month-old daughter, Daphne, could have enough. And while she has family and friends who can help out if she really needed, she acknowledged that for many others it could mean real starvation.

She added: “A lot of people in my local area are not going to be able to pay their rent or council tax, they’re not going to be able to pay their water or heating bills. They’re going to end up in serious debt or really ill because the government hasn’t provided enough.”

For growing, restless and frustrated children such as Jacob all across the country, having insufficient food will also have a real impact on their mental health. “He’s really struggling,” Ellison said. “Kids are going to be exhausted and have no energy, but not having food will affect their brainpower.

“The bottom line is that children are starving – and that’s not okay.”

Simon and his 11-year-old daughter, Lola: "We’re absolutely going to be cutting back on stuff because of this."
Simon and his 11-year-old daughter, Lola: "We’re absolutely going to be cutting back on stuff because of this."

Former private hire driver Simon Young, from Cheltenham, also worries about the potential effect of these paltry food parcels on his 11-year-old daughter, Lola. “It could have a massive impact on a child’s well-being if they’re not getting the range of nutrients they require,” he told HuffPost UK.

He found the use of the word “hamper” laughable when it contained just one loaf of white bread, three slices of cheese, two slices of ham, a pear and an apple, two packets of crisps and some sponge cake and brownie.

The contents – intended to last five days – are particularly bleak considering the lack of healthy or nutritious options. “There’s a bit of calcium out of the cheese and a bit of protein out of the ham. I’m struggling to think of anything else,” said Young.

He added: “Lola is 11 and she’s going through some enormous changes at the moment. She needs variety for healthy bone growth and brain development, and she needs to be switched on because she’s doing schooling.”

To make sure Lola has enough to keep her healthy and enough energy to last through a gruelling homeschool day, Young will be spending his own money to buy tomatoes, carrot and celery sticks, plus some fruit and sandwich fillings. It’s just day two and the ham, cheese and apples have already been eaten, as well as half of the bread.

Recently separated from his wife, Young and Lola are currently staying with his mother while they wait to be housed in six weeks’ time. “I haven’t had the sword of Damocles of rent hanging over me like a lot of other people have, but that’s all going to change soon and I’m worried about that,” he admitted.

Once they move out, Young will have to make some significant changes in order to pay for the supplementary vegetables and fruit for his daughter’s lunch. “We’re absolutely going to be cutting back on stuff,” he said. “We’ll be eating a lot more vegetarian meals and I’ve told Lola we won’t be able to have Netflix – that’s our one treat and that’ll have to go.”

The £30 free school meal vouchers Lola had been given last year had made a huge difference to her family. “Despite what Ben Bradley said, we don’t tend to frequent that many brothels or crack dens,” Young said, referencing the Tory MP’s comments back in October.

“I was really budgeting and that money went an awfully long way. I could do packed lunches for a fortnight and cook in the evenings. That £30 went a very long way.”

When contacted for comment regarding Jacob’s parcels, Mark Longstaff from North Tyneside council, said: “Provision for those in receipt of free school meals was set up quickly and some suppliers have not been able to provide what was asked for because of the timescales involved and the number of hampers required.

“Whilst there is a national voucher scheme planned by the government, schools are still awaiting further information about this.

“The council has moved to arrange its own voucher scheme for parents whose school meals are provided by North Tyneside Council.”

A spokesperson for the prime minister said the Department for Education is investigating and that the national free school meals voucher scheme would shortly be reopened.

They said: “We are aware of those images circulating on social media and it is clear that the contents of those food parcels are completely unacceptable.

“The Department for Education is looking into this urgently and the minister for children, Vicky Ford, is speaking to the company responsible and they will be making it clear that boxes like this should not be given to families.”

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