By Alex Metcalfe and Stuart Arnold | LDRS

FREE school meal packs on Teesside have sparked concern across the political divide – with images showing some include just “half a tomato”.

Worry about the standard of food parcels erupted yesterday after images of £5-worth of food to feed a family for three days triggered consternation nationally.

Former Redcar MP Anna Turley revealed how she’d been sent an image of half a tomato in a pack for one child to last 10 days.

The ex-Labour MP added: “A Redcar resident has sent me the contents and pic of their parcel for one child for 10 days.

“Loaf (of) bread, three bananas, two apples, two pears, three potatoes, HALF a tomato, quarter of cucumber, tin of beans, tin of soup, & individual butter and cheese servings and half a carrot.”

Families with youngsters entitled to free school meals have been given food to help them during this latest lockdown.

Conservative Redcar MP Jacob Young said he’d seen lots of posts about lunch boxes some schools had put together this week for youngsters on free school meals.

He believed some of the lunch boxes offered weren’t acceptable and revealed he had spoken to the Schools minister on Monday night – telling constituents how caterers were now being given £15 a week, up from £11.50 last week.

He added: “Please get in touch with my office if you have concerns about your child’s lunch box, and we will feed it in.

“The Government is reintroducing the national voucher system that was active during the first lockdown – but this won’t be ready until the week after next due to the companies which run it.

“Schools will have a choice between lunch boxes or vouchers – depending on the needs of their children.

“Please be mindful of the fact that schools had expected to open last week and so these lunch boxes are last minute and rushed.

“Also, not all schools have had issues – and parents have been impressed with the lunch boxes provided.”

Dickensian

Dave Moulder is secondary school teacher in Stockton and member of the National Education Union who is part of a group campaigning against child poverty.

He claimed complained-about provision for those eligible for free school meals was “like something out of Dickens”.

He said: “We live in Britain for goodness sake – we are a rich country by relative standards.

“There should be no need for poverty at all, let alone having the cheek to give out some of the food they give to our children.

“We can afford to feed our children enjoyable, nutritious meals.

“This is like something out of Dickens.”

Stockton Council leader Cllr Bob Cook said it was “ridiculous” that families were receiving about £5 worth of food in a pack.

The Labour chief said the meals provided in council food packs were “more nutritious”.

“There was hardly anything in that food parcel and as far as I know that was supposed to last three days,” added Cllr Cook.

“What the Government should be doing to cut out the middleman is using the  vouchers again so if children are at home, parents can buy food for the week.

“It would cost a lot less than paying a private sector business £30 to get £5 of food to last three days.

“In my mind, there was nothing in that pack that would last three days.”

Support charities or give out vouchers

The Department for Education is investigating images of the free school meal offered.

It added: “We have clear guidelines and standards for food parcels, which we expect to be followed.

“Parcels should be nutritious and contain a varied range of food.”

Simon Clarke, MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, revealed he’d spoken to a minister this morning who told him a national food voucher scheme would start “imminently”.

Thornaby-based Five Lamps revealed what it had provided to families over the summer in a post on social media.

The not-for-profit group showed it had provided a free breakfast club with food to feed a family with two children at breakfast and lunch on £15 for the week.

And it urged the Government to “support charities or give out vouchers”.

“Some said they didn’t need it”

Cllr Carl Quartermain, leader of the Labour group on Redcar and Cleveland Council, also wanted a move back to the previously used voucher scheme.

”Why move away from it in the first place as it was working fine?” he added.

“The argument there is what people were spending their money on – but you have to treat people like adults.”

Cllr Alison Barnes, cabinet member for children’s services at Redcar and Cleveland Council, said the authority had received a winter support grant from the Government last year – and, as a result, had offered a money card to eligible families for free school meals.

This was over and above the provision being provided via schools.

It consisted of three payments of £15 per child per week covering two weeks at Christmas, one week in February and one at the end of March.

The Liberal Democrat said: “It could be used in various locations and used to buy food, or for example to pay a bill, but could not be used for either tobacco or alcohol.

“Some families actually got back to us and said they didn’t need it.

“We have suggested to schools that we as a council would be prepared to put the value of the free school meals onto the card and they could pay us back.

“The schools are hanging fire to see what in fact the Government is going to introduce – if they are going to introduce vouchers again it takes it out of the schools’ hands.

“The situation is so fluid, it is changing all the time.”

“Why are we waiting?”

Stockton Council says it is involved in the roll out of free school meals during lockdown where schools are using the authority’s catering services.

Some academies use other providers – but the council confirmed it would be working with authority-maintained schools to make sure free school meals get to eligible pupils being home schooled.

Cllr Cook added: “Schools have been closed for a week now yet we’re still waiting for the Government to launch the national voucher scheme for families with children who usually receive free school meals.

“Meanwhile, we are providing the schools that contract our catering services with food parcels for pupils who are entitled to free school meals and are currently learning from home.

“The food parcels we provide are based on guidance issued by the Local Authority Caterers Association and include a fresh loaf of bread, cheese, ham, baking potatoes, five portions of fruit, five yoghurts, tinned tomatoes, baked beans and tuna and a portion of dried pasta.

“The fact is, the Government announced school closures without any notice, and has not yet managed to get a national voucher scheme up and running to help families entitled to free school meals. This needs to be rectified urgently.”

“A quick fix”

One Teesside parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “Though the packages provide food, I do feel vouchers are far more beneficial for parents to menu plan and batch cook in order to optimise nutritional value.

“These provisions do not provide that, they seem very much like a quick fix, and put me off using school meals again in future.”

The parent gave an example of one food parcel she had received for a child at senior school and said it included bread, pasta sauce, beans and tuna, a portion of pasta, cheese and yoghurts, a banana, carrot, potato and fresh tomatoes, along with a sponge mix and custard.

She said: “I am grateful that there is such a provision, but the nutritional content is my concern.
“A voucher would allow me to better plan for both kids.”

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