Free school meal vouchers and hampers: What could you buy for £30 to feed children

Anyone who has skimmed the news this week will have seen the food parcel, supposedly worth £30, said to have been delivered to a family who can't currently claim the support of free school meals.

And anyone who thinks a loaf, three yoghurts, a can of beans, a small handful of dubious looking fruit and veg, a portion of dried pasta and some skinny cheese slices will feed two primary-aged children for a week to 10 days wants to come and hang out in my kitchen when homeschool cuts for lunch.

The FSM hamper that has been shared on social media by Twitter user Roadside Mum
The FSM hamper that has been shared on social media by Twitter user Roadside Mum

They might also want to sit there around 8am, mid-morning, mid-afternoon, when school work finishes and any time in the hour preceding bedtime when my son and daughter, aged seven and nine, will tell me they're positively starving and in need of something to eat.

Our food bills, and the amount of fruit, veg and other snacks our children would happily munch through each day whilst not in their classroom, have both rocketed with each lockdown.

Families entitled to the support of free school meals for their offspring, who don't currently have children in school to take them up, are it seems either receiving food vouchers or in the case of Twitter user Roadside Mum - a food 'hamper' provided by a company contracted to deliver such a service.

A review of this supply chain has been promised by the government since these images began appearing online, which has prompted calls for food vouchers to re-instated and for ministers to find better ways in which to support parents struggling to feed their families.

According to the government website, schools can claim to be reimbursed up to £15 per eligible FSM pupil per week.

Family food bills have increased during lockdown as children spend more time at home
Family food bills have increased during lockdown as children spend more time at home

Now having studied the image of the food being shared, and looked at others like it when fellow parents followed suit, I think it's safe to say that 'hamper' is perhaps stretching it and, as a parent, I was disheartened to think that anyone can possibly think it meets the needs of a growing, primary school-aged child. (Not to mention one currently expected to have the energy and focus to sit indoors each day and motivate themselves for home learning.)

And that's without even getting into whether the choice of items represents good value for the taxpayer - even if you subtract warehouse, delivery or staffing costs - which one might argue has to be factored into the budget.

But armed with my own £30 I tackled the supermarket today with an element of determination to prove that what we appear to be handing out to the nation's youngest generation isn't acceptable.

Forty five minutes later and £26.56 lighter I emerged from Asda with 40 items which included meat, a full bunches of bananas, a large bag of potatoes, entire packets of apples, clementines and kiwis, dried goods, a handful of tinned fruit and soups and a few treats thrown in for good measure such as some digestive biscuits and a multi bag of ready salted crisps.

This shop cost just over £26 with the aim of feeding two primary school aged children lunches for a week to 10 days
This shop cost just over £26 with the aim of feeding two primary school aged children lunches for a week to 10 days

Now before any avid foodie reading this tells me I'd have been better to ditch the jar of pasta sauce in favour of making fresh or chips in with any other food prep advice related to cost or nutritional value - in an attempt to keep the social experiment somewhat realistic I've tried to stick to the guidelines given to those responsible for providing families with free school meal substitutes.

These include: minimal amounts of food that require a fridge or freezer, healthy lunches that will both stretch across a week to 10 days and last in terms of quality and potential meals which must not rely on parents having additional ingredients at home in order to prepare them. The deliveries should also cater for pupils with varying dietary needs.

Being - admittedly - slightly selective based on what I know those in my house will eat (no one likes food waste) I've chosen lunch options which are a mixture of sandwiches, jacket potatoes, soup, salads or child sized portions of things like sausage and mash.

I also could only obviously choose from what was available on the shelves today - for example there was no supermarket-own brand bread which would have obviously been a little cheaper than what I ended up with.
And having quizzed my kids on the sorts of items their school may serve up for a pudding I also opted for tinned fruit, custard and the odd sweet treat.

There is also a lot of fruit or salad items because thousands of children are currently missing the daily free fruit that would ordinarily be handed out at break times and milk in place of the cartons that too would be guzzled between lessons in the younger years.

It's not a perfect shop, far from it, and I've had the luxury of being able to select items based on what I know just two children will eat. And I haven't had to do it in quantities to suit tens or hundreds of families with differing needs.

But equally, it was still more than £3 short of the supposed £30 budget (lets call that admin and distribution costs) and there's no doubt considerably more food and variety than in the pictures being circulated online.

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