While hailing Rashford, Manchester council offered 'shocking' food parcels of its own

MILL EXCLUSIVE: 'We accept that this initial offer - sent to schools without the knowledge of or necessary approvals from senior staff who should have been consulted - was inadequate'

Good morning — today’s newsletter is the result of an investigation we have been working on since January. It concerns food packages devised by Manchester City Council’s catering arm during the current lockdown — packages that council officers now accept were “inadequate” and should never have been offered.

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By Martha Wilson, Tom Taylor and Joshi Herrmann

Late last year, as a political row raged about the government’s refusal to extend its food vouchers for children on free school meals, Manchester City Council offered to fill the gap.

“We stand with Marcus Rashford,” said Councillor Garry Bridges, the council’s executive member for children and schools, announcing that the council would fund the vouchers during half term. “No child should go hungry during the school holidays.”

Sharing the news, Bev Craig, the council’s executive member for adult health and wellbeing, posted on Twitter: “Despite budget cuts @McrLabour will step in. The Govt might have walked away, but we won’t.”

The message from the city’s leading councillors was clear: Manchester’s Labour-led council was looking after its poorest families after the Conservative government had let them down.

Come January, a new public outcry erupted after a mother posted a picture of a measly food package sent to replace her child’s free school meals during the January lockdown. The government’s contracted food provider Chartwells admitted the parcel was too small and Downing Street described it as "completely unacceptable".

Andy Burnham said he was “appalled, shocked and sickened,” by the parcel, blaming the outsourcing of food provision to “organisations which clearly don't care enough about the people that they're trying to support.” Ashton MP and Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner described the food package as “dehumanising, humiliating, callous and cruel”.

Councillor Craig, whose “pinned tweet” is about her motion to make Manchester a “Right to Food city”, praised a local cafe for “stepping in where the Government fails.” “We've all seen the awful food pictures,” she tweeted about Chartwells’ miserable fare.

What she and her colleagues apparently had not seen was the food parcel their own council was preparing to send to Manchester’s most hard-pressed families.

‘They did not seem surprised’

As the story about the Chartwells package dominated the news, a headteacher in Wythenshawe — the neighbourhood where Marcus Rashford grew up — asked her staff what kind of food packages the school was receiving. She wanted to check the most vulnerable children at her school weren’t going to be short-changed too.

The answer astonished her. The school had received an email from the council’s catering service Manchester Fayre offering a parcel of food that was supposed to go to every child eligible for free school meals. Except it looked like the email had cut off halfway down.

6 bread rolls, UHT Milk, a cucumber, a tin of tuna, a tub of soft cheese, some breadsticks, 6 small Soreen lunch bars, some tomatoes, 6 pieces of fruit…

That was it. By any measure it was at least as meagre as the Chartwells parcel. Arguably it was worse.

The parcels are supposed to give families who qualify for free school meals £15 worth of food to feed their child at home for a week. “I costed up the food parcels provided by Manchester Fayre and it was, at best, £7 per parcel,” the headteacher told The Mill.

The school told the council the offer wasn’t acceptable, and they were going to use the national food voucher scheme instead. “They did not seem surprised when we told them,” the headteacher said.

Around 28,000 children aged 16 and under in Manchester schools are eligible for free school meals, and making sure they are well provided for is foremost in the minds of headteachers.

The Mill understands that within days of the council’s offer for food parcels going out, multiple schools had rejected it. Fortunately for the council, none of the headteachers posted the inadequate food list on social media, where anger was still being directed at Chartwells and the government.

After receiving multiple objections from schools, Manchester Fayre quietly effected a u-turn. In a letter to schools seen by The Mill, Manchester Fayre offered much more substantial parcels than their original package.

In the letter, Manchester Fayre’s operations manager told schools: “I understand that the DfE [Department of Education] are re-introducing the national voucher scheme therefore you may wish to use the scheme to this instead of providing lunch parcels.”

An administrative staff member from a different school told The Mill: “It's not actually a ringing endorsement of themselves.”

Soon after the food offer was sent to schools, Manchester City Council committed itself to becoming a “Right to Food city”, backing a campaign which wants to change the law to make access to food a legal right for all. In a press release, Councillor Craig said: “Until this happens the Council will continue to offer help wherever it is needed, only stopping when every single family can access the food they deserve.”

‘We accept this was inadequate’

When we asked Manchester City Council about the derisory food offer three weeks ago, we were told staff at Manchester Fayre did not recognise the claim. A council official informally suggested to our reporters that the story was a case of “He said, she said”.

But when we revealed this week that we had obtained emails between Manchester Fayre and schools in January, the council finally admitted the “inadequate” offer had been made, and blamed it on workers who had not sought the “necessary approvals from senior staff”. A spokesman for the council told us:

When the January lockdown was announced we now realise that whilst waiting for national guidance on food parcel contents and costs, an interim food parcel offer was sent out to schools by Manchester Fayre that was hastily put together by well-meaning staff, based on what supplies they had available to them at the time. We accept that this initial offer - sent to schools without the knowledge of or necessary approvals from senior staff who should have been consulted - was inadequate, but we understand that no schools took up the offer and that no food parcels based on this offer were actually sent out to families.

We twice asked the council yesterday whether they can say categorically that none of the inadequate packages were sent to families. A spokesman replied that “to the best of our knowledge no schools took up the original offer.”

The council adds: "As soon as national guidance from the DFE on food parcels became available in the second week of lockdown, Manchester Fayre worked with its nutritionist to put together a properly approved lunch parcel offer for schools that met all the required national standards.”

Lib Dem councillor John Leech, the leader of the opposition on Manchester City Council, told The Mill: “I am shocked that this has been allowed to happen and that there wasn't the suitable supervision in place, or just basic common sense to realise that what was being produced wasn’t acceptable.”

He went on: “Councillors have criticised the government's failing on food parcels. It's shocking that schools couldn't even trust the council. I will want to get to the bottom of how it's been allowed to happen.”

Local food campaigner Alex Timperley, who co-founded the Manchester City Fans Foodbank Support, says food poverty in Greater Manchester is “absolutely through the roof” since the start of the pandemic. Commenting on the council’s inadequate food offer, he said: “The council have to get it right — they need to be really honest about it and change it.”

Graham Whitham from Greater Manchester Poverty Action told The Mill: “It is highly concerning that families were being offered food parcels that weren’t adequate and good to see that this situation has been rectified.”

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Manchester City Council’s full statement is below:

Throughout the pandemic we have been doing everything we can to support local people, including families with children - many of whom we know have been struggling. This includes providing additional financial support for individual families, and deciding to directly fund the cost of food vouchers for children on free school meals during the Easter holidays last year, long before the government stepped up to the plate and agreed to do it.

We also continued to provide £15 per week supermarket vouchers throughout the school holidays, including the Christmas break, putting money into the pockets of parents rather than relying on food parcels.

When the January lockdown was announced we now realise that whilst waiting for national guidance on food parcel contents and costs, an interim food parcel offer was sent out to schools by Manchester Fayre that was hastily put together by well-meaning staff, based on what supplies they had available to them at the time. We accept that this initial offer - sent to schools without the knowledge of or necessary approvals from senior staff who should have been consulted - was inadequate, but we understand that no schools took up the offer and that no food parcels based on this offer were actually sent out to families.

As soon as national guidance from the DFE on food parcels became available in the second week of lockdown, Manchester Fayre worked with its nutritionist to put together a properly approved lunch parcel offer for schools that met all the required national standards.

Whilst the majority of our schools opted to use the voucher system in common with most schools nationally, we were asked by ten schools to supply them with these food parcels and received no complaints about them.

We're fully committed to continue supporting local families and will once again be funding food vouchers for all eligible children over the upcoming Easter holidays.