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Free School Lunch Boxes – What Went Wrong?

So what do we make of the UK schools lunch food box scandal? It all started with a mother posting a picture on social media of what she said were the contents of a food box that replaced her child’s usual free school lunch.

The contents weren’t very appetising, nor did they come close to being two-weeks’ worth of lunches. There was talk of this box replacing £30 worth of vouchers, another not very flattering comparison.

But there has been some confusion since then. The box was actually only a week’s worth of food, according to the supplier. Some suggested that certain pictures flying around social media didn’t include everything that was in the box. However, Chartwells, the supplier of the box and part of the giant Compass food service group did apologise and say that the box hadn’t met the required high standards, and committed to refunding the costs. The firm is clearly trying to recover from the bad publicity and is now including some additional breakfast provisions in the box, free of charge and the government has given an additional allowance of £3.50 per week per child.

It does also seem that the box was charged at £10.50, not £30, which is very different in terms of the value to the taxpayer and the recipient, and that includes food, packing and distribution. And whilst my initial thinking was that the specification must have been far too loose, or non-existent, it appears that the guidance for what should be provided is quite detailed and looks very appropriate. This is from the guidance prepared by LACA (the Lead Association for Caterers in Education), Public Health England and the Department for Education:

Food parcels should contain a balance of items from the different food groups, to reflect a healthy balanced diet for a child, as depicted by the Eatwell Guide and in line with the School Food Standards. Each parcel should provide: 

  • A variety of different types of fruit and vegetables, to provide at least one portion of fruit and one portion of vegetables each day. These can be fresh or tinned but it’s best to source versions tinned in water or fruit juice, with no added salt or sugar.
  • Some protein foods (such as beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other non-dairy proteins), to provide a portion of food from this group every day. Meat and fish should be cooked (e.g. cooked ham or chicken slices) or tinned (e.g. tuna, salmon). Consider alternating between different protein foods to provide variety.
  • Some dairy and/or dairy alternatives (such as milk, cheese, yoghurt), to provide a portion of food from this group every day.

So let’s go back to first principles and consider whether we have seen “Bad Buying” here. The specification issue is a good place to start. Was this product specified properly? It looks like the answer might be “yes”, if we consider those guidelines. They give some leeway but are pretty clear.  

Then we can look at competition. A theme running through my book – and good procurement in general – is the power of competition as a lever for driving value and supplier performance.  Now it isn’t clear whether Chartwells won this business through a competitive process. I suspect there may be a framework with a number of providers approved to supply food boxes, as it appears that individual schools are the actual “buyers” here.  

We would hope there was some competitive process behind that – but the food boxes provided to people who were locked down last year were supplied by firms under emergency contract regulations which did not require competition, according to Spend Network and the Good Law project. Was it the same with the school boxes?

There is then the question of establishing value for money, which comes back to both the specification and the competitive process. But even if there wasn’t competition , it should have been possible to establish a “fair” price for the boxes, including the food itself, packing, handling and distribution.  I can’t say that £10.50 was a fair price – but it doesn’t feel too far out if it had covered five meals to the standard required in the guidelines.

The final and critical point comes down to supplier performance and therefore contract and supplier management. The furore all started with the pictures of substandard boxes hitting the media. Chartwell’s have mentioned supply issues; but the fact is, they should not have delivered boxes that did not meet the standards. Or, if there really was no alternative because of shortages or other supply issues, they should have explained that to their customers.

If there was a widespread and  deliberate policy of delivering less value than the specification required, then of course that would be a different issue altogether. But if this was more of a one-off, the schools involved should have been told that the product was not up to standard and that some reparation or mitigating steps would be taken quickly. That would probably have headed off the public exposure.

So this looks like a failure of supplier performance, possibly fairly isolated rather than endemic, which arguably showed some issues with contract management too. If someone on the buy-side knew of the issues, they should have done something about it, and if they didn’t know, there was something wrong with the relationship between Chartwells and the “contract manager”, whoever that was.  But I’m less sure that it was a failure in the core procurement process in this case.

2 replies
  1. Dan
    Dan says:

    There’s another factor to consider as well. The charge was £10.50, but this included picking, packing, and delivery. Possibly also cold-room storage, depending on the supply chain. It was generally reckoned (albeit on Twitter) that it was only about £5 worth of food.

    Was it considered at the procurement stage that this was the most cost-effective option? Were other options like vouchers considered? Or was it just a political response to headlines about vouchers being swapped for booze?

    Reply
  2. IanR
    IanR says:

    In addition to Dan’s comment there is a further factor, and that is the time given to the supplier to organise, stock, prepare and deliver the boxes. You may remember the very short notice given that schools would be closed after the Christmas break, that same short notice, perhaps even less may also have been given to these suppliers.§

    Reply

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