Families given “degrading” food parcels as part of the Government’s free school meals programme are being treated “like dirt”, with one mother taking steps to pawn her jewellery to pay for meals.
Elaine Stacey, 41, from Reading, was given a food parcel “worth £3” containing a loaf of bread, weighed-out pasta in a sandwich bag, three jelly pots and a jar of Dolmio sauce to feed her 17-year-old son for one week.
During the previous lockdown, she was given £15 food vouchers.
She told the PA news agency: “I was up all night and I didn’t know what to do today. I almost thought I’d have to go to the shop and steal food.”
Ms Stacey, a carer, said she sorted her jewellery out on Monday night, with the intention of pawning it to pay for food, “but there are no shops open”.
Her son has Huntington’s disease, ASD and ADHD, and was given high-calorie drinks by his doctor after losing too much weight.
She said: “I am giving up my food to feed my son.
“I have never been in this position before, I am a saver so for a rainy day I have had to use everything up on the other bills because we are home all the time, the electric gets used more, I have to have it on because he has gotten so skinny he gets cold really quickly.”
Her daughter, 11, was offered free meals in school but because Ms Stacey is shielding, she hasn’t been able to get in, so currently gets nothing – although the school said it is looking into ways it can help.
After hearing how desperate she was, a friend transferred money and she said she “ran” to the shop to stock up on food.
“If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know what I would have done. There are children suffering, big time. This is going to affect their health further on,” she said.
Kerry Wilks, from Redcar in north-east England, received a package at her youngest child’s school containing a loaf of bread, three yoghurts, a tin of beans, tuna, two potatoes, four pieces of fruit and two slices of cheese.
“Even the teaching staff were quite embarrassed by giving them out,” Ms Wilks, 38, told the PA news agency.
“I think what’s really bugged me about it is the fact that there’s two pieces of square cheese wrapped in cling film – I just find it so degrading.”
Ms Wilks is a widow and acts as a carer for one of her three children, who has autism, so has no income aside from Universal Credit.
She received vouchers last summer – which she said she also found “degrading” because of the attitudes of some people online and in shops, but preferred that to the packages.
She said: “Going into the school and receiving that – ‘oh, your food hamper’s here’ – well the perception of a hamper that I’ve got is not what I’ve received.”
She added that she would not be collecting the packages for her two older children, who attend a different school, saying: “It’ll cost me more in bus fares to get it than what the food’s worth.”
According to her local MP, Conservative Jacob Young, catering companies had been provided with £11.50 per student to produce the packages.
Ms Wilks, who said her package had come from Caterlink, added: “If that’s £11.50 worth of food, wow.”
Asked how she felt the Government was treating people who receive the parcels, she said: “It’s like they’ve scraped them off their shoe. They’re treating them like dirt. It absolutely horrific.”
Ms Wilks was one of a number of parents posting images of food packages they had received over the last two days, which were later described by a spokesman for the Prime Minister as “completely unacceptable”.
One such image, which showed a £30 package and was supplied by a different company, was estimated to contain just over £5 worth of food.
A Chartwells spokesperson said: “We have had time to investigate the picture circulated on Twitter. For clarity this shows five days of free school lunches (not ten days) and the charge for food, packing and distribution was actually £10.50 and not £30 as suggested.
“However, in our efforts to provide thousands of food parcels a week at extremely short notice we are very sorry the quantity has fallen short in this instance.”
The PM’s spokesman added: “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.”
Caterlink managing director Neil Fuller said: “All children require nutritious food to support their learning, whilst at school, or at home.
“We have listened to feedback from parents and pupils, and in some cases it is clear our parcels have fallen short.
“We have immediately reviewed our current food parcels, enhancing the contents. These enhancements have been funded by our organisation’s charitable foundation, WSH Foundation.
“The enhanced parcels will be prepared by a site-based catering team and will be available for distribution in the coming days.”