No such thing as a free lunch

Arianne Shahvisi

In my first year of secondary school, a science teacher began a lesson on nutrition by asking us to tell her what we ate for dinner so we could categorise the components of our meals into their correct food groups. She looked aghast as child after child muttered ‘chips and beans’. For some, ‘chips and beans’ was cover for something less wholesome and dependable. The teacher quickly abandoned the exercise and instead reverted to the mythical meal on the ‘food wheel’ poster Blu-tacked to the wall, a testament to our parents’ failings.

A third of the pupils at my Essex comprehensive qualified for free school lunches. Back then, claiming a meal involved visiting the office and crossing your name off a list. The meals were doled out in brown paper bags, too cumbersome to crush into a school bag, too shameful to carry openly. Uptake was low; some names were never crossed off, a register of listless children somnambulating their way through the school day. It was better to be hungry than humiliated.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell offers a first-hand account of living below the poverty line:

You discover the boredom which is inseparable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing … Only food could rouse you. You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.

Orwell learned the hard way that the romantic ideal of the ‘starving artist’ is the stuff of middle-class poseurs. Hungry people cannot produce art, and hungry children cannot learn. The brain is the most energy-intensive organ in the body, guzzling a fifth of the calories we consume. It flags and stalls when under-fuelled. Allowing children to go hungry places direct energetic constraints on their cognition and development. It also leaves their immune systems more vulnerable to infection.

The UK’s free school meals programme ensures that children from deprived households get at least one meal a day and costs the government £600 million a year. (‘Eat Out to Help Out’, which ran for just a month and subsidised restaurant meals, cost £849 million.) According to the Sustainable Food Trust, malnutrition costs the UK £17 billion a year, as well as leaving people desperate, miserable, reduced to bellies with a few accessory organs.

Amid its mounting disgraces, the UK government has spent the entire pandemic dragging its feet on the issue of hungry children, as though they might develop the fortitude to overcome their dependence on food. It took a 23-year-old footballer, haunted by his memories of the rumbling shame of food insecurity, to call them to account. Marcus Rashford now spends his time off the pitch lobbying the government to provide free school meals during school closures and holidays. He is articulate, incisive and unyielding, but his tweets and television appearances have an edge of bafflement, as though he can’t quite believe he’s having to fight for this.

The UK’s failures have not escaped international attention. Last month, for the first time in its seventy-year history, Unicef provided an emergency handout for UK children. Jacob Rees-Mogg responded that the agency should be ‘ashamed of itself’, calling the assistance a ‘political stunt’. In 2017, he said that the rise in food bank use was ‘rather uplifting’ and suggested that the best route out of poverty is through employment. He’s wrong. According to a report on deprivation in my hometown of Southend-on-Sea, where 35 per cent of children live in poverty, ‘low-paid jobs do not seem a viable means of removing parents from poverty, even when in receipt of benefits and tax credits.’

Now that schools are closed, eligible households receive parcels to replace free school meals. The chef and campaigner Jack Monroe, who is also from Southend and has experienced food poverty first-hand, spent today collating photos of these measly offerings. One parcel, apparently intended to last ten days, for which the government was said to have paid the provider £30, contained a small block of cheese, a loaf of bread, a tin of baked beans, a few pieces of fruit, two carrots, two potatoes, a tomato, three small yoghurt tubes, and two mini malt loaf snacks. If you bought the bundle at a supermarket it would cost just over £5. The government says that the provisions must allow for the preparation of ‘healthy meals’ and ‘not rely on parents having additional ingredients at home’. Yet once the single can of baked beans is eaten it’s hard to see how anything resembling a meal can be produced from what remains, let alone a balanced or appetising one.

Rashford asked for a meeting with Chartwells, the firm that provided the parcel. They issued a statement:

For clarity, this shows five days of free school lunches (not 10 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.

Chartwells is a subsidiary of Compass, which has a £350 million contract to cater for UK schools. Paul Walsh, who stepped down as the firm’s chairman last month, is a Tory donor and former adviser to David Cameron. While 700,000 people in the UK have been driven into poverty by Covid-19, a small cadre of profiteers have been mopping up new government contracts, raking in the spoils of what Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism’.

Children are going hungry; restaurants and cafes are struggling to survive. At least one solution is staring us in the face, and Rashford hinted at it in a tweet: ‘We have so many independent businesses who have struggled their way through 2020 – why can’t we mobilise them to support the distribution of food packages? Or am I being naive?’ Again: that note of puzzlement. No, he isn’t being naive. But why is he doing the work of a politician?

Voting against feeding deprived children sounds like the stuff of caricature. Yet 322 MPs voted down a motion to extend free school lunch provision over the Christmas holidays. Rashford’s unflagging, public disgruntlement led to the decision being overturned. The Tories have talked themselves and others into associating need with deceit, incompetence and laziness; this is the morally bankrupt endpoint of the persistent demonisation of welfare recipients as ‘scroungers’ and ‘fraudsters’. Derisory food parcels may be the product of incompetence and profiteering, but those factors are underwritten by wilful neglect, part of a deeper punitive ideology. Shame, misery and hunger are seen as just deserts.


  • 13 January 2021 at 8:02am
    Abigail Watson says:
    It goes back to the first Queen Elizabeth, and the concepts of "deserving poor" and "undeserving poor". Two things that no-one can argue with, which seem self-evident but have to be argued.
    1) Children did not ask to be born.
    2) Children will still need to eat in the school holidays and when the schools are closed. A surprising number of otherwise intelligent people, brainwashed by right-wing Twitter posts, think that it's OK to provide free school meals in school, but not in the cases per (2).
    Do they think that children cease to function when they are not at school?

    • 15 January 2021 at 2:49pm
      SandyTB says: @ Abigail Watson
      It's the undeserving poor that need our help. To quote Alfred P Doolittle: "they don't eat less than the deserving poor, and they drink a lot more!"

  • 13 January 2021 at 9:25am
    Joe Morison says:
    This fiasco perfectly illustrates the coming together of the three main characteristics of this administration: corruption, incompetence, and nastiness.

  • 15 January 2021 at 6:02pm
    DAVID SILVER says:
    I have this Victorian book of lessons designed for working people who want to improve themselves. The idea mooted by the authors is that a group of workers desirous of improvement band together and each pay a penny to a teacher who can begin instruction from the book. A chapter on physiognomy has an illustration of the effect vice has on the face and the effect virtue has on the face. The Vice illustration shows a man slowly degenerating from picture to picture as he proceeds with his life choice. The Virtue illustration shows results of the opposite life choice. The last image in each sequence of illustrations shows the virtuous man looking like a refined middle class patriarch while the man addicted to vice looks like a dweller of the city slums. Therefore the implicit conclusion is that if you are poor it is because you deserve to be poor, and if you are comfortably off it is because you deserve to be so. It appears from the food box fiasco that the Tory Party and most of the Civil (Uncivil?)Service long ago internalised that point of view as shown by their apparent attitude toward the impoverished.

    • 17 January 2021 at 2:40pm
      freshborn says: @ DAVID SILVER
      Not sure what the civil service has to do with it.