As Tory-linked firms misappropriate money intended for feeding working-class children, Gus Woody demands not just food for all, but working-class control of its supply and distribution.
On Monday, images circulated online of a paltry ‘hamper’ of food. A tin of beans, a few bruised pieces of fruit and veg, bread, some clingfilm-wrapped pasta, with some Frubes and Soreen thrown in – it was hardly an appetising spread. This collection, which users quickly pointed out was worth around £5.22, was a free school meal delivery, meant to feed a child for several days instead of a £30 voucher. This photo not only led to public outcry, it also saw similar images spreading online – food packages in bin bags, peppers chopped in half, tuna emptied into a cup, and so on.
Seemingly like every other service in the UK, the free meals hampers were being managed by a private – in this case, a company named Chartwells. The company is owned by the Compass group, a multinational catering company which made over £1bn profit in 2019. When people looked into Chartwells, their social media was covered in glitzy images of luxury meals delivered to private schools – it was one meal for the working class and one for the rich. Chartwells has of course released a statement questioning the exact value of the hamper and the period of time it was intended to cover, but this is just noise. They are gaining from the fact that children in the UK are not able to get enough food – scalping and profiteering from the disaster zone that is this country.
The response from either side of Parliament has been underwhelming, though this is not surprising. The Department for Education described the provision as ‘unacceptable’ and Vicky Forde, the children’s minister says she is going to ‘urgently’ look into the matter. Keir Starmer tweeted that it was ‘disgraceful’, asked ‘where is the money going?’ and said ‘this needs sorting immediately.’ Such lukewarm talk of ‘sorting’ and ‘investigating’ reflects a Parliament which sees child poverty as a necessary (if perhaps unfortunate) part of the UK’s economy. Let’s not forget, a significant amount of the scum which floats at either side of the Commons oversaw the massive expansion of privatisation in schools and child welfare provision since 1997. With MPs secure on an £80,000 income, plus parliamentary expenses, and a significant number of the MPs in the Commons sending their own children to elite private schools, they will simply never have our back on this issue.
Campaigners like Marcus Rashford and Jack Monroe have done more to secure food for the working class than anybody close to Westminster. Recently, projects like Cooperation Town and groups like the Green Anti-Capitalist Front have engaged in practices of mutual aid, ensuring that food is distributed. But such practices are always defensive, they fill a gap that should never have been allowed to exist. There is a need for the working class to go on the offensive, to fight for food for everyone.
Insourcing and the National Food Service
Many have rightly called for the ‘insourcing’ of such a service, for the government to return to providing the £30 vouchers, if not cash transfers or more ambitious projects. (The use of vouchers instead of cash transfers has been the norm for asylum seekers for decades.) Perhaps most notably, there are calls for a national food service, a use of the state to create a network of decentralised food production and distribution. This is commendable in its recognition of the crisis of food today. However, it is not enough. It should be the bare minimum of any socialist programme that food is de-commodified and put on the table for all those who need it.
Free school meals and any wider food program from the state, whether in hampers or vouchers, still risks being used as a weapon of repression by the ruling class. The last few years have seen a protracted war occur around free school meals, with the political right claiming support given to working-class families is ‘abused’ and increasingly making families jump through administrative hoops to receive food. Furthermore, the hostile environment policies in the UK have seen many migrant families excluded from free school meal programs, creating another internal border in the UK. The working class should be entitled to food irrespective of how ‘deserving’ it is in the eyes of the state, and whatever nationality it holds.
The free school meals debacle is just one facet of the horrifically broken food system that is being driven ever closer to collapse by capitalism. Food production in the UK and the wider world is deeply exploitative. For decades now, seasonal farmwork in the UK has often relied on the abuse of insecure itinerant workers. Then, as groups such as AngryWorkers have shown, factories which distribute, pack, and prepare food are deeply harmful to their workforces, with poor pay and dangerous working conditions rife. Finally, there are the retail and hospitality staff who are the final line between food and its consumers. They are overworked, underpaid and have been unprotected from the virus during the pandemic. The only solution to these problems at every level of the food supply chain is its wholesale control by workers, throughout its production and distribution networks.
Enough is enough
Life on the plague island that is the UK is increasingly short, nasty and brutish. Teachers are sick of seeing gaunt students struggling to focus because of the lack of food. Across working-class communities, we see neighbours often struggling in silence, fighting to put food on the table. Bigger and bigger donation bins are appearing at supermarkets, and foodbanks are at breaking point. It doesn’t have to be this way.
By keeping the working class starved, constantly scrimping and desperate to get an income and food on the table, the ruling class can stop us organising and fighting back. We can make co-op kitchens, practice mutual aid, and do the like, but it is rear-guard action. We need to push back and say it is fundamental that food is for everyone – no ifs, no buts. For every starving child, this government and those complicit should be made to feel the anger of people pushed too far.