“Fit for a small, starving child”: Chartwells, free school meals and the free market

Chartwells UK

By Daisy Handscomb

On 11th January, photos emerged online of the Chartwells food parcels delivered to parents of children eligible for free school meals.

Provided through third-party catering services, mainly Chartwells UK, the parcels replaced the previous scheme of £30 vouchers that could be used in most supermarkets. According to calculations by Twitter users, the parcels would cost around £5 to produce.

Whilst their website boasts a focus on “helping those in education to build strong bodies, sharp minds and lead long, healthy lives”, Chartwells’ food parcels to vulnerable children appeared to contain less than the recommended daily intake of 1600 to 2200 calories. Photos of half a pepper and three slices of cheese demonstrate the cold, calculated decisions behind each parcel; they are not designed to nourish young minds, but rather to ensure a private company generates a suitable profit margin.

What have Chartwells done?

Chartwells have been involved in a number of disputes over food provision in recent years. At the beginning of the year, students at New York University gained global attention online after posting videos and photos of the quarantine meals they were given on campus. From ignoring dietary restrictions (such as vegan students being given egg sandwiches and Muslim students receiving ham sandwiches, for example), to including mouldy or opened food, NYU ended up cutting ties with their catering provider: Chartwells US.

The poor quality of food was mirrored in Chartwells services at a Connecticut high school in 2014. After finding mould and human hair in their lunches, students at Farmington High School boycotted their cafeteria, which served food supplied by Chartwells. In a similar vein to complaints about food parcels, students complained that portion sizes were sometimes “fit for a small, starving child”. One student told The Washington Post that the food quality was so poor that he “wouldn’t even feed a dog”.

In 2012, Compass Group USA – part of Chartwell’s parent company – reached an $18 million settlement with New York Schools for overcharging school lunches. The investigation found that “Compass received discounts from food vendors it worked with, but did not pass on those savings to New York’s schools”, which is a requirement under New York State law. In total, 39 New York schools and school districts across the state were found to have been “improperly overcharged”.

What we have here is a chronic issue that pervades the free market. Companies, when given the choice, will opt to protect the growth of profit over the health of people. It is more important, in their minds, to ensure revenue does not drop below a certain amount than to provide substantial meals for vulnerable children. In the age of austerity, we have grown accustomed to the regular outsourcing of previously public services to private companies. These companies receive tax payer’s money and, completely unchecked, decide the best way to make more.

Profit-seeking over service providing

This kind of profit-seeking ‘business decisions’ are not new to Chartwells. I personally first encountered them at my own university in November 2020, when Chartwells HE announced plans that risked 92% of food staff at the University of Sussex being made redundant. Citing a decrease in sales on campus, they had originally opted not to partake in the government’s furlough scheme. After a campaign organised by Sussex’s UCU and supported by staff and students alike, Chartwells HE announced that staff would be furloughed until March. Likewise, in 2019, staff at Blackpool hospitals went on strike over poor pay. As NHS staff in comparable roles – such as cafeteria staff and cleaners – were paid at leats £9.03 per hour, Chartwells staff earned only £8.21.

At Louisiana State University, Chartwells hired the non-profit Cenikor to staff dining services on campus. Cenikor is a drug rehabilitation organisation that in 2019 was accused of Medicaid fraud and the use of unpaid labour – a modern form of slave labour. They sent tens of thousands of patients to work without pay at for-profit organisations such as Exxon, Walmart and Chartwells. LSU and the company later ended their agreement with Cenikor, stating that Chartwells required vendors to follow “all federal, state and local labor laws”.

The involvement of subcontractors like Chartwells on university campuses is part of the wider move to marketize higher education, and the rest of the education sector as a whole. Staff at Sussex, for example, are employed by Sussex Food, which in turn is managed by Chartwells. Chartwells itself is a subsidiary of the Compass Group, which has a “global reach” to 45 countries, according to their website. The constant outsourcing and subsidiary-parent structures makes it increasingly difficult for the public to determine who, exactly, is at fault for a number of issues.

Beyond the education sector

The controversies surrounding Chartwells and its parent company go beyond the education sector. Compass Group has been involved in several disputes across the globe in recent decades. In 2005, Compass was involved in a bidding contest to win contracts through the United Nations. Following their successful bids, Compass faced lawsuits amounting to £600 million from competitors that alleged they had obtained the contracts through rigged bids and fraud (the company’s internal investigation concluded this was the result of “the behaviour of a few individuals”).

Eurest Dining Services, another subsidiary of Compass, were involved in an outbreak of Listeria in Canadian prisons in 2008. Authorities detected the microorganism in Eurest’s food-production facility and launched an investigation into possible exposure. Eight years later, the Southern District Health Board in New Zealand received a number of complaints from patients at Southland and Dunedin Hospitals in regards to meals provided by Compass. The Group had been awarded the 15-year contract after the DHB made the decision to stop producing meals in-house, outsourcing to a private company to save around $NZ6.9 million over the contract’s duration.

In a statement released on Twitter, Chartwells UK apologised for the quantity of the parcels’ contents, suggesting that “the extremely short notice” they received is to blame. Initially, this would suggest that the government, aware that further restrictions may have been necessary, failed to establish contingency plans with companies of their choice. At best, this is an oversight issue; at worst, it is demonstrative of a chronically-failing government and inept leadership. I would argue, however, that the poor-quality food parcels were not solely caused by “short notice”. Instead, they are the result of a business structure that consistently puts profit above people – and a system that does the same.

As always, regardless of the outcome of the free school meals saga, the most vulnerable people in society will always bear the brunt of corporate greed. Chartwells Independent, which caters for independent and private schools across the UK, will continue to provide high-quality meals for students, whilst children eligible for free school meals will be sent a loaf of bread, three apples and two carrots to last the week. The class and income divide in this country will continue to grow and people will continue to starve.

With a revenue of £24.878 billion in 2019, it is nothing short of despicable that the company chose to provide £5 meals in the place of £30 vouchers. And it is, unfortunately, no surprise that the government chose to make this exchange. Styled on the politics of austerity, Boris Johnson’s government will continue to give deals and contracts to donors and friends of the cabinet. And the poorest in society will continue to suffer.