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The Tories' meagre food ration parcels make for a truly Dickensian reality Open in fullscreen

Malia Bouattia

The Tories' meagre food ration parcels make for a truly Dickensian reality

The government was forced into a U-turn last week on its food parcel policy [Getty]

Date of publication: 19 January, 2021

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Comment: The shameful food parcels handed out to needy parents show once again how a privatised pandemic response puts profit over people, writes Malia Bouattia.
These days, the Tories seem to be making a U-turn practically every week. The most recent example came about last week, after being publicly shamed over the measly "rations" offered to children who would normally receive free meals in schools. 

Parents took to social media to share their anger and dismay over the small portions of food that were given to them to feed their children for an entire week, sharing photos of the items.  

One mother from Stoke-on-Trent said that she was given a single loaf of bread, some potatoes, half a cucumber, a single pepper, a chocolate bar, a block of cheese, some butter, four pieces of fruit, and a few salty snacks that were meant to feed her 12-year-old for 10 days. 

She is a single parent who has not been able to work since March 2020, has since applied for over 130 jobs, and is currently surviving on her weekly benefits of £62. "It feels like we're being punished for being poor" she added.

This mother, like so many across the country, is being made to pay for the crisis brought on by the rich and the powerful.

Children in England were previously being given £15 of vouchers but that changed to food parcels after another of the government's U-turns that forced schools to close abruptly in light of the alarming spike in Covid-19 infections. 

And it's not difficult to see why the government has chosen this approach. One mother spoke out on twitter about the portion she was given for her child, stating that the cost would have amounted to £5.22 at a supermarket - despite official claims that £30 worth of public funding had been spent on it. 

Boris Johnson's response was - as always - to simply shift the blame

Comparisons between the food packages given to children in England with those in Wales also sparked outrage. In Wales, each child is given £19.50 per week in the form of payment, vouchers or food parcels - a considerable improvement.

The shaming of our prime minister by desperate parents might have led to a reversal of the decision not to provide food vouchers to parents. But Boris Johnson's response was - as always - to simply shift the blame. On Wednesday, he said that it was a "scandal and a disgrace that some companies are trying to get away with the provision that they're offering".

To be clear, it was Boris and his government's choice to take the power out of parents' hands, and hire a private company to feed their children instead. This could only ever lead to decision-making based on budgets and profit margins, instead of children's actual needs. 

Many of those parents who took to social media in desperation have already been forced to make the most of the little they have, as poverty sweeps the nation and adequate government provisions are nowhere to be found. They explained how they already had to stretch the insufficient vouchers to feed their kids, and that having that taken away was a real slap in the face, only adding to the humiliation they felt about being in need of government support. 

The Tory way, as always, is to make the people pay in times of crisis, while moving public funding to private companies. 

Lest we forget Thatcher, Thatcher the milk snatcher. In 1971 Margaret Thatcher cut milk provisions for school children during her time as Education Secretary. Literally, taking provisions out of the mouths of children has never been an issue for the Conservatives. They highlighted this again all too well over the summer, when most voted against providing free school meals to starving children over the break. 

Johnson's performative outrage is therefore not only insincere, but it attempts to shift accountability away from his own government.

Remembering who are the true culprits of this fiasco doesn't mean we should refrain from critiquing private companies that are profiting from the crisis, of course. But it's important to remember those in power have created the perfect environment for such "business" to take place. The tragic Grenfell fire which claimed the lives of dozens is another, all too painful, example of this same logic.

The Tories had a choice, after all, unlike the parents involved. Firstly, parents should be given a choice about how they want to feed their children, whether that's food parcels, payments or vouchers. 

The Tory way, as always, is to make the people pay in times of crisis, while moving public funding to private companies

Secondly, the government should have chosen to create jobs amid mass unemployment by hiring people from local communities to put together food packages in rented, safe and sanitary restaurants, which are otherwise empty during lockdown. This would have also been a better way to boost the restaurant industry as opposed to the fatal "eat out to help out" scheme. 

As the mother from Stoke-on-Trent said about her experiences of hardship, "I don't want them to grow up thinking this is normal."

We cannot accept that this is going to be the state of things. 
Not just because we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but also because we know that there is more than enough to go around. We create society's wealth through our work, we should demand it gets invested in our communities, not least for the well-being of our children. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.

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