A Welsh council has spent millions with the catering company at the centre of a scandal over free school meals and recently renewed its contract until 2030 despite complaints from parents.
Chartwells has been named as the company behind the meagre food “hamper” supplied to one family in England, a photo of which has shared almost 30,000 times and branded “unacceptable” by footballer and activist Marcus Rashford.
Campaigners in Wales contrasted the situation in England with a photo posted of the generous supplies provided to families in Caerphilly through a Council contract with Castell Howell Foods.
But research by Nation.Cymru has found the company behind the storm holds the catering contract for at least one of Wales’ local authorities, which are responsible for providing free school meals.
Newport City Council signed a six year contract worth £21 million with Chartwells in 2010, saying it would “ensure that we meet the principles of [Welsh Government Action Plan] Appetite for Life and put the needs of our pupils first.”
The contract was extended for a further three years and records of Council payments to its suppliers show Chartwells received £733,000 in 2020.
Chartwells’ parent company, the Compass Group, announced in September that Newport City Council has “retained Chartwells for a further 10 years.” No details of the cost were given.
The decision comes despite complaints from parents about the service provided by Chartwells, including portion sizes and quality.
One parent sent Newport City Council a photo of a meal served to her child at Glan Usk primary school, saying: “It’s absolutely no wonder children are asking for food as soon as they get home.”
The parent added: “Please can you confirm who commissioned or let the contract to Chartwells and what immediate action will be taken to improve standards? With respect I nor hundreds of other parents are prepared to purchase dinners while a lengthy and multi-party complaint is handled.”
Newport City Council’s decision to outsource school meal provision to Chartwells saved it £355,000 but led to a rise in the cost of school means and lower pay and working conditions for staff, according to a report on outsourcing by the Smith Institute and trade union Unison.
The 235 catering staff earned £1.05 an hour less in 2015 than if they had continued to be employed by the Council who implemented a living wage for directly-employed staff but not contractors.
“It is clear that reducing labour costs has been a major contributing factor to driving down the costs of providing the service, via lower pension costs for new staff, frozen pay rates and changes to working patterns, especially in view of high turnover at the start of the contract,” the report explained.
Unison has blamed outsourcing to Chartwell by councils in England for creating “a race to the bottom” in school meals.
“There are huge problems with large-scale outsourcing of public services to multi-national companies,” the union’s acting national secretary, Donna Rowe-Merriman, said in November.
“The main interest for private companies is profit to pay shareholders and salaries to senior managers – not the provision of quality meals to children, some of whom come from households in poverty.”
A spokesperson for Newport Council told Nation.Cymru: “Newport City Council is providing vouchers to parents and carers of children eligible for free school meals during term time and the holidays.
“The complaints referred to in this story were made a number of years ago and were fully investigated and dealt with at the time.
“The council’s contract with the company includes the requirement to meet the Welsh Government’s quality standards for all school meals.”