By Grainne Cuffe, local democracy reporter
A call to reduce the length of a controversial school meal contract was rejected by Lewisham’s mayor and cabinet on Wednesday.
It followed the launch of a petition asking the council not to contract Chartwells at all and bring school meals in-house.
Chartwells, part of Compass Group UK, came under fire during the pandemic after parents posted pictures of paltry free school meals provided by the company.
Footballer Marcus Rashford, who successfully campaigned for FSMs to be provided over school holidays, branded Chartwells’ offerings “unacceptable”.
At the time the company apologised for the parcels and said it had “substantially enhanced” its meals.
Lewisham Council has contracted Chartwells to provide meals in schools across the borough since 2009, and prior to that Scolarest, a previous subsidiary of Compass.
On June 9 mayor and cabinet renewed the contract, worth about £6 million per year, for at least four years, with the option of extending for a further two.
Chartwells, according to the report on the contract renewal, was the only company to bid.
The council previously consulted on proposals to bring the contract in-house, but not enough schools supported them.
School meals are currently delivered to 51 schools through the contract between the council and Chartwells.
However, 25 schools did not want to remain part of it and are going to use another provider from August 2021.
The rest will be supplied by Chartwells.
A “number of changes have been made to the specification and resulting submission in order to improve the service”, according to the report, including vegan and Halal options, the lack of which caused particular concern.
Councillor Chris Barnham, cabinet member for children and young people, presented the report recommending Chartwells get the contract.
He told mayor and cabinet “there is nothing more important than the way our children are fed” and explained the background.
This included the council’s previous proposals to bring the contract in-house, which would have involved schools taking responsibility for their kitchen staff and the council having a team that would oversee the service.
“After extensive consultation it became clear there wasn’t enough support from schools for that model to go ahead,” he said, adding he had been “personally disappointed”.
“I don’t want to be critical of schools – I think we can all understand the reluctance of schools to contemplate taking on what would have felt like a new burden, especially [because] at the time they took the decision, the pandemic had struck and they faced a lot of other pressures,” Cllr Barnham said.
He added: “Although we’re not where we ideally wanted to be, it’s important to recognise that the proposal before us tonight offers some really important improvements on the current service which will benefit children.
“These include a better reflection of the cultural diversity of pupils in our schools with vegan and Halal menus and more meat free days, a commitment to the Soil Association’s Food for Life ethical and health standards, with seasonal menus, local, organic and Fairtrade produce and no fish served from the Marine Conservation Society ‘fish to avoid’ list.”
All contractors must pay at least the living wage, he said.
Sharon Noonan-Gunning, a leaseholder in Deptford and whose work focuses on community involvement in food policy issues, urged mayor and cabinet to look a one-year contract with Charwells.
She said it “could really give Lewisham an opportunity to fit into the national conversation at the moment around school foods”.
“We believe that the Chartwells option is not really well founded. We know that Chartwells has a longstanding history in Lewisham but you’re probably aware that there are longstanding controversies attached to Compass,” she said.
She cited an $18 million fine for overcharging New York schools for meals, numerous staff disputes in the UK, and the controversial parcels during the pandemic.
“What is at the heart of this is what are the company’s interests – they are a Fortune 500 company.
“The question for us is how much can they care for the health of children, when really their main interest has to be their shareholders,” Ms Noonan-Gunning said.
She urged the council to take the year to look into different models within the community, “developing the local economy and food economies”.
She said the public should have access to school kitchens and spoke about how in New York school cafeterias were transformed into community soup kitchens during the pandemic.
“Under private contracts local communities have no access to school kitchens,” Ms Noonan-Gunning said.
Ms Noonan-Gunning said the food parcel incident has made Chartwells controversial, if “not a toxic brand”, and added: “We can’t be business as usual post pandemic, we have think about how we can engage with communities more than ever.”
Cllr Barnham said: “The longer-term aim and ambition that you’ve set out is one we share.
“We are not where we want to be, we want to be somewhere better and we’re going continue working for that.”
Pinaki Ghosal, executive director for children and young people, said the council “retains a quality assurance element” so it can monitior the food.
“Going forward we do want to have a proper look at school meals, that will take more than one year – it’s taken us two years to get to this place.
“We’re recommending that we go with this contract and over the course of the coming years we work towards a different arrangement longer term. That will have to be something the schools agree with,” he said.
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