By William James
LONDON (Reuters) - Shared images of meagre food packages supplied to children by schools during England's COVID-19 lockdown prompted an outcry on Tuesday and led the government to warn private suppliers to raise their standards.
With England in lockdown to try to control a surge in coronavirus cases, the government has asked schools to provide free lunches for eligible children stuck at home.
However, images shared online of some of the food parcels were criticized by politicians, celebrities and the public, who questioned whether they contained enough food and nutrition for the number of meals they were supposed to cover.
The outcry began when one Twitter user posted a parcel she said was expected to last 10 days of lunches containing: a loaf of bread, two potatoes, two carrots, three apples, a tomato, some dried pasta, bananas, cheese, beans and other small snacks.
"The photos being shared on social media today are completely unacceptable and do not reflect the high standard of free school meals we expect to be sent to children," Children and Families Minister Vicky Ford said.
Children are eligible for the programme if they are in their first three years of schooling - roughly aged 4 to 7 - or if their parents receive certain state benefits. More than 1.4 million children qualify.
Reuters spoke to the Twitter user who posted the original photo. She declined to be named, but confirmed the photograph showed everything in the package she had collected from the school for one child.
"What they're going to end up with on a typical day is one round of cheese sandwich with one quite thin slice of cheese in it and no butter on the bread - that is going to be quite hard to eat," she said.
The pack was supplied by Chartwells, part of the FTSE-listed Compass Group PLC. Supply contracts are not negotiated by central government.
The firm said the package in question was only intended to last five days. It apologised for the quantity it offered and said it would refund schools in cases where it had not met its standards.
"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," a spokeswoman for Chartwells said in an emailed statement.
Other users posted images they said showed similar food packages received from schools, which can come from a range of suppliers. Reuters could not verify all the images.
"Something is going wrong and we need to fix it, quickly!" said Premier League soccer player Marcus Rashford, who led a publicity campaign last year to pressure the government into extending the provision of meals to include school holiday times, which it later did.
(Reporting by William James, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)