Jane Renton reports on the latest concerns surrounding the introduction of FSM vouchers and the over-dependence on supermarkets
A system of rationing should be introduced to change cultural behaviours by the public and to stop government over-dependence on supermarkets, an internationally renowned food policy expert, told the Mayor’s London Food Board at an emergency virtual online meeting yesterday.
He urged his colleagues, many of whom are involved with local authorities and charitable groups in getting vital food supplies through to vulnerable groups, including children.
“We have to send a letter to Downing Street saying you have to set up a system of rationing,” said Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London’s centre for food policy, who is also a member of the London Food Board, set up by mayor Sadiq Khan in 2017.
His comments were triggered in large measure by growing unease over the introduction of school vouchers for children entitled to free school meals. With schools now closed to all pupils other than the children of emergency workers, the online vouchers appear to be redeemable only through the large supermarket chains.
“The voucher scheme could undermine the skills and expertise of caterers in a very worrying way,” he warned.
Professor Lang said supermarkets had been touting and lobbying hard to become the gateways for school food voucher schemes.
“The state gives undue emphasis to retailers to resolve their problems,” he said, adding that a system of food rationing, similar to the one last introduced during World War II would be by far the most sensible approach.
“No-one really wants rationing, but [people] see the rationale for it, he said.
He referred to the new Covid-19 legislation, with its “draconian powers”, but which made little, if any reference to food.
“I am old enough to remember the rules from world war two – one of them was ‘eat your greens’. Those cultural rules took anxiety away from parents and gave everyone guidance, including caterers.”
The Department for Education was doing its best, he said, but warned “there is a block in Whitehall where they really want to leave it all up to Tesco.”
While many school caterers were continuing to provide packed lunches for pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) and confined to home, the reality was that many parents or carers were increasingly confused over collection arrangements. Some were unwilling to risk their health by venturing out to collect them.
“A number of schools have chosen to implement a voucher scheme because many parents are unable or unwilling to access [packed lunches prepared by the school,” an official for the Royal Borough of Richmond confirmed.
“There is real fear among those who need to collect food about the risks they might face,” agreed Stephanie Wood of School Food Matters and co-chair of the School Food Plan Alliance.
She referred to one head teacher, who had prepared 200 packed lunches for children on FSM entitlement at their school, only to have three families turn up to collect their packages. Fortunately, the leftover food was quickly redistributed to a local food bank.
Though increasing numbers of schools were turning to food vouchers as an easier expedient, Stephanie voiced strong concerns about such school food voucher schemes, which she described as “a great unknown”.
Wonde.com, a management information system widely used by schools was being used to deliver online vouchers to parents.
“The vouchers can be redeemed at supermarkets, predominantly it seems at Tesco’s, which is set up to accept the vouchers,” she said.
Some schools had set the value of the voucher at £23 a fortnight – to correspond to the £2.30 price set by the government as the cost of an individual school meal under Universal Infant Free School Meals, the universal school meal benefit for infants introduced in 2014.
“This is not enough money, as parents do not share the same economies of scale as a caterer can on similar sums,” warned Stephanie.
There are also concerns that a voucher scheme such as this would seriously undermine the health benefits of the more nutritionally balanced meals produced by a predominantly reformed school food industry.
“School caterers are the best possible people to deliver what is required. They are fantastically skilled and understand what the School Food Standards involve and how to address issues such as allergens, “she said.
It is far from clear at this stage whether any of the school food voucher schemes will place any limitations on families buying unhealthy food or drink in supermarkets.