Free school meals: Chartwells' managing director Charlie Brown on what went wrong

04 February 2021 by
Free school meals: Chartwells' managing director Charlie Brown on what went wrong

One widely shared photo of a Chartwells free school meals parcel hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Katherine Price asks managing director Charlie Brown what the company is doing to put things right.

"I wanted to reiterate my sincere apologies for the challenges we've faced," begins Charlie Brown, managing director of Chartwells. The school catering arm of Compass Group, the largest contract foodservice company in the world, would not until recently have been considered a household name outside of the industry, even though it works with more than 3,000 schools, colleges and universities across the UK.

But following a picture one parent posted on social media of their child's free school meals parcel, branded "disgraceful" by prime minister Boris Johnson, the company has seen its reputation battered by probably the most damaging accusation ever levelled at a foodservice provider – making a profit from child hunger.

Over the last year, footballer Marcus Rashford has pointed the spotlight at what Covid-19 school closures mean for those children that rely on breakfast clubs and free school meals. Now, Chartwells is at the centre of a huge debate over whether the 1.4 million children on free school meals are being adequately served by a system that is supposed to protect and feed them.

In an interview with The Caterer two weeks after the social media storm, Brown is apologising straight off the bat. "I do take it personally. We're still committed to supporting the schools where we can and putting in remedial action," he says. The company admits the parcel, the image of which has been shared 30,000 times since it was posted on Twitter on 11 January, fell short – so how did it go so wrong?

"When we discovered the schools were closing on that Monday [4 January], obviously it was very, very short notice and we didn't have any advance warning from the Department for Education. So, in the spirit of trying to do the right thing by our schools and parents, we tried to put some parcels together for schools in a very similar vein to what we did in the first lockdown," explains Brown.

"Unfortunately, in the week that we implemented that, there were some supply chain issues. We did 18,000 parcels in that first week and we think that there were about 500 affected by short deliveries. Obviously the one on social media was one of those parcels. Clearly it's very regrettable and comes with working at pace. What we've tried to do is put some reassurance processes in place, not just with the supply chain but also with operations, to make sure that it doesn't happen again ultimately."

What we've tried to do going forward though is put some reassurance processes in place, not just with the supply chain but also with operations, to make sure that it doesn't happen again

He points out that it was a "pretty small percentage" of parcels affected, but clarifies that "one was too many". The parcel in question contained two bananas, two snack portions of malt loaf, one tin of beans, a loaf of bread, three yogurts, two potatoes, two carrots, three apples, a tomato, pasta and eight portions of cheese. It was not only missing items but was presented to the parent as a provision for one child for 10 days, when Chartwells has clarified that it was intended for five.

The parcel was widely criticised and compared with the alternative vouchers, which are available up to the value of £15 per pupil per week, when it was clear that the picture did not display £30 worth of food.

Chartwells' five-day breakfast parcel
Chartwells' five-day breakfast parcel

Chartwells has clarified that a five-day parcel at its specification at the school cost £10.50, although Brown says he doesn't know the value of the food parcel in question. "I know it was short of the specification and that's why we didn't charge the school for it, but I don't know the exact cost."

After investigating the incident, the foodservice operator made a series of commitments throughout the week, including apologising to the affected schools and parents, not charging schools for parcels that did not meet specifications, providing breakfasts fully funded by the company, and continuing provisions through the February half-term.

The Department for Education has also increased the free school meal allowance of £2.34 per pupil per day, or £11.70 a week, by £3.50 a week per pupil as of 8 January, of which Chartwells has said "every penny" is going towards the food provision.

Moving forward

Regardless, social media has been awash with critical pictures of free school meal parcels aimed at Chartwells. The group has been responding and clarifying those it is and is not responsible for, and has created a free helpline for concerned schools and parents, with some staff brought off furlough to answer the phones and support the extra quality assurance checks that have been put in place.

"Our crisis plan is one of responding; making sure we're accessible," says Brown. However, he admits that there was a breakdown in communication, a lesson that has been learned the hard way. He has personally been in touch with the parent who posted the image, ‘Roadside Mum', and "got some feedback", although when asked if he will continue to engage with her, he says, "We've broadened it and I think we've offered to work with the school and the headteacher". Chartwells has supplied the school with breakfast parcels, although the school has moved to vouchers.

"We've tried to focus on our apology, to put in place and give our schools and parents reassurance, and I guess what we've tried to do is focus on some positives coming out of this," Brown says.

"I can't necessarily change what's happened, but what we can do is move forward and try to create some positives for vulnerable children, which is where it all began in terms of positive intent."

I can't necessarily change what's happened, but what we can do is move forward and try to create some positives for vulnerable children

Brown emphasises that this focus on communication and support extends to Chartwells' workforce on the ground, "thanking them for the hard work they're putting in to delivering in quite difficult circumstances", as well as engaging with parents to shape the future of its free school meal parcels.

The group's intention is to change the contents of the parcels to ensure children do not get bored of eating the same meals every week, especially considering the prime minister has announced that schools will not be reopening until 8 March at the earliest. Chartwells also clarified that its free school meals can accommodate dietary requirements, that it has a team of medical diet nutritionists to advise parents, and if there are safety factors or ingredient availability issues, the group advises parents at the earliest opportunity so that they can instead apply for school meal vouchers.


Money talks

Brown says Chartwells has not lost any business since the incident, although when asked if he expects to in the future, considering the damage that has been done to the brand name, he says: "We are doing everything we can to support our clients during Covid. The most important thing from a client's perspective is that we've stayed in regular contact throughout this whole media issue. We've apologised to all of our clients who have been impacted by short deliveries, but also delivered on our commitments so far in terms of our response."

And when asked about the cost to the business of remedial measures, he says: "It's an investment, but it's the right investment, and it's what we should be doing to make up for the shortfalls."

Although Brown confirms that in normal times when schools are open Chartwells does make a profit on school catering contracts, he says it is a "relatively low margin piece of our business" and during periods of school closures over the last year, the business has "worked mainly on a cost recovery basis".

Following discussions with Roadside Mum, one figure that can be quantified is her request for a £10,000 donation to charity Turn2Us, which helps people living in poverty in the UK.

"We're working with the charity to see how it best fits, but I am confident that we will probably come to an arrangement," he says.


Eliminating child hunger

Chartwells was the first caterer to sign up to Rashford's Child Poverty Taskforce last year, which seeks to identify a long-term solution to child food poverty in the UK, and following the image on social media going viral, Rashford and his team were in touch the next day.

Brown says Chartwells is "still very much a part of that team" and wants to contribute, but he adds it's "early days". The group's contribution so far has been sharing information on the work it has done with schools during lockdown.

Having spoken with Chartwells, Rashford posted on Twitter: "One thing that is clear is that there was very little communication with the suppliers that a national lockdown was coming. We MUST do better. Children shouldn't be going hungry on the basis that we aren't communicating or being transparent with plans. That is unacceptable."

Following the incident, Rashford and 40 chefs, NGOs, charities and education leaders, including Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, signed a letter co-ordinated by the Food Foundation calling for an urgent review into free school meals.

Although Chartwells has not publicly backed the campaign, Brown says that "anything that does bring attention to school food and encourages a greater scope of food provision for those who need it, plus anything that encourages more children to have school meals, I'm fully supportive of".

Chartwells' five-day lunch parcel
Chartwells' five-day lunch parcel

Has the last year highlighted a wider problem in the free school meals system, considering the UK's largest school meals caterer had problems delivering? He says: "I think the parcel specification that we all set out to achieve is broadly in line with providing five school meals – five lunches for a child – in a week. Clearly schools closing during the lockdowns and trying to turn something around very quickly is a challenge for us all and I think had we not had the supply chain issues, we would have been happy with our parcels."

He believes that school caterers have an important part to play in the fight against child food poverty, and in educating children currently at home about health and wellbeing. When asked his thoughts on how free school meals might, or should, change in response to events of the last year, he says, "I would actively encourage more children to be fed in schools. And anything we can do as an industry to help support parents with that agenda, we should all do collectively."

Chartwells' commitments

  • That the company makes no profit on the provision of free school meal food parcels.
  • Apologising to affected parents who have contacted the company about their parcels.
  • Not charging the schools affected by shortages.
  • Providing breakfasts within each parcel, fully funded by the company, which will continue while schools are closed.
  • Ensuring the additional £3.50 of government funding has been put towards parcels, with "every penny" of this going towards the food provision.
  • Continuing the provision of free school meal parcels for free over the February half term, where schools can make it work.
  • Extra quality assurance checks at supplier level and within each individual school.
  • Chartwells employees in each school signing off on batches of parcels as they leave the school.
  • Deploying additional Chartwells employees and providing them with extra guidance.
  • Offering a free helpline for concerned schools and parents.
  • Creating a supply chain specifically to serve children with these parcels.
  • Moving to one-week parcels at all schools to include more fresh produce.
  • Increasing the quantity and variety of products.
  • Providing detailed recipe guides.
  • Continuing to innovate and evolve the parcels in the coming weeks.
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