Government suspended supply at start of lockdown and is unsure when it will begin again
The government has been urged to reinstate its school fruit and vegetable scheme amid concerns that the diets of disadvantaged children have deteriorated during the coronavirus crisis.
The programme, which gives a free item each day to children in reception and year one in England, was suspended at the end of March after the general closure of schools, but parents have called for its return after research found that fruit and vegetable intake by children who receive free school meal vouchers has decreased significantly.
Government documents show the scheme was worth up to £179m between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2020, but a new contract to run between August 2020 and August 2022 is only worth up to £60m.
The Department of Health and Social Care would not comment on the contract, which was awarded on 6 March, about two weeks before the decision to close schools. It was awarded to six fruit and vegetable suppliers based across England to provide produce to 2.3 million children in approximately 16,600 schools.
Responding to a parliamentary question earlier this month, the minister for children Vicky Ford said the government could not confirm whether the scheme would return from the autumn term due to uncertainty over how events may develop.
“A decision was taken in March that the school fruit and vegetable scheme would not operate for the whole of the period which would have been the summer term of 2020, recognising the substantial operational difficulties which would need to be resolved in order to restart such a large, national scheme part-way through a term,” she said.
“At present it is not known how events may develop and so we are not yet in a position to confirm whether or not the school fruit and vegetable scheme will operate in the autumn term. These are rapidly developing circumstances; we continue to keep the situation under review and will keep parliament updated accordingly.”
Hannah Cameron McKenna, a parent from Bath campaigning for the return of the scheme alongside Chefs in Schools, Feeding Britain and Food for Life, criticised how it was “suspended quietly and without consultation nor clear reason”.
“We have had conflicting statements about where the money that would have been spent on the scheme has gone, and no assurance about when, or indeed if, it will return,” she said.
“For many children, this scheme plays a vital part in how much fresh fruit and vegetables they eat, and without it their nutrition and health will be negatively impacted. The suspension of this scheme hits the most disadvantaged children the hardest. The government is failing these children.”
The Whitehall spending watchdog recently announced it was investigating the performance of the free school meals voucher scheme and the process by which the Department for Education awarded it to the French-owned company Edenred without a competitive tendering process.
A government spokesperson said the fruit and vegetable scheme “has been paused so as little fresh produce goes to waste as possible while we work to bring more children back to school. Funding which would have been spent on the scheme is being used to support the NHS and other priorities during the pandemic.”
Schools providing meals to children have been asked to try to meet school food standards to help ensure children have healthy balanced diets, including fruit and vegetables.