By Grainne Cuffe, local democracy reporter
A petition has been launched to bring Lewisham’s school meals contract in-house over concerns about the current provider.
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 Wednesday (June 9) it is set to renew the contract, worth about £6 million per year, for at least four years, with the option of extendeding for a further two.
Chartwells, according to a report set to go before mayor and cabinet, was the only company to bid for the contract.
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, listed in the report, will be supplied by Chartwells.
The petition, which had more than 460 signatures at the time of writing, was launched by campaign group Food Inequalities Rebellion.
It states: “Instead of letting a private company make profits from our council tax and our kids’ plates, we want school food to be made and served by people who work for Lewisham Council.
“Employees with secure conditions and London living wage guaranteed.
“Bringing our school kitchens into public ownership means they can serve others in need in our communities.
“Recent school food parcels were shockingly inadequate, and Chartwells were responsible for some of the very worst.
“But the food our kids are served inside school dinner halls is poor too. Quality, variety and quantity is inconsistent.
“Chartwells is particularly bad, refusing to provide halal food and missing target time and again.
“Perhaps that is why some schools spend many hours negotiating contracts with rival companies when they should be allowed to focus on teaching and care.
“Let’s spend our council budget on nutritious food for our kids and wages for the local people who make it, following Lewisham Council’s manifesto and Corporate Strategy.
“Every child has the right to sufficient, healthy food which is culturally appropriate and meets any specific medical needs they may have.”
The report states that a “number of changes have been made to the specification and resulting submission in order to improve the service”.
Councillor Chris Barnham, cabinet member for children and young people, said: “The proposed new contract would see significant improvements to school meals in Lewisham, which will only benefit pupils.
“There will be a greater emphasis on cultural diversity with an extensive halal menu as well a new focus on environmental sustainability with new vegan and seasonal menus.
“The council and local schools have spent significant time working on a new school catering contract which offers the highest possible quality for our children.
“This started some time ago in 2019, when the council proposed a well-designed in-sourcing model.
“This depended on sufficient schools signing up, since school meal provision is ultimately a decision for school governors. Not enough schools supported the approach.
“Responding to schools’ preference, a new tendering process begun and I believe the proposed contract with Chartwells would see significant improvements to the current service.
“We are also pleased that all staff will continue to be paid at least the London Living Wage.
“However, given our commitment to supporting children and families, and to take action on the climate emergency, I am keen that for the future we continue to explore the scope for more ambitious models for our school meals.
“We will of course work with schools and local communities in developing proposals.”
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