Don’t be surprised by the Chartwells meal scandal. It happened to uni students first

And neither Marcus Rashford nor the government were there to help

The shocking and pathetic meals provided to primary school kids by catering company Chartwells this week have affronted many. In fact, they’ve sparked national debate, mass media coverage and policy change, with the education secretary announcing a return to the voucher system because of the outrage the meal packages provoked. I’m pretty sure that marks more U turns than I can count on my fingers from the Department for Education now, but at least it’s something.

However, any student looking upon these meagre meal hampers will neither feel shocked nor surprised. Because it’s exactly what happened to them three months ago. The only difference is that the cavalry wasn’t called in to sort it out, and some of these meals the students actually had to pay for.

In October, once the return of uni students successfully incubated thousands of coronavirus cases, localised to student accommodation and halls, a mass of students had to self-isolate in their rooms. This meant they needed feeding. And so they were fed – some even by Chartwells themselves. The self-isolation meals provided by their universities were, at best, sad and insubstantial with little nutritional value, and, at worst, out of date, frozen or unfit for students’ dietary requirements. A Muslim student at Edinburgh was given a ham sandwich, and another Edinburgh student was repeatedly given products containing nuts despite having a nut allergy. Students were also left waiting for hours, sometimes late into the day, for any breakfast or meals to be delivered. But where was the outcry then?

I’ll tell you where it was. It was limited to the university students themselves, with some particularly caring, angry parents thrown into the mix. It was covered by the media, pretty widely, but the outcry was a drop in the ocean compared to what’s happening now. Some universities apologized, sorted themselves out, picked themselves up and dusted the reputational stain off. But no big names stepped into campaign, and the government might as well have been on holiday in Dubai with the rest of Instagram because there was not a peep from Westminster nor Whitehall.

The coverage of that scandal, versus this, feels insidious. University students were interviewed on the news talking about the mess going on at halls, the paltry meals and lack of support. They were a good news item, but then they were blamed for rising cases, and the pity ceased.

Children and parents receiving Chartwells’ embarrassing meal boxes completely deserve the attention they are getting. Especially because, and this has been demonstrated again and again in the past year of our Tory government, that attention has been enough to prompt actual policy change. But university students don’t have a Marcus Rashford or Jack Monroe to help them out, to amplify their voices loud enough for a government to hear. They don’t have anyone but themselves, and they have been ignored at every turn – including during Boris’ addresses to the nation. They deserve as much attention as those primary school children, those in secondary schools, taking GCSEs or sitting their A-Levels. But because of their position as half-adults, and as a handy scapegoat for rising numbers at times, they don’t get it.

If you are a university student, keep shouting about how you are being treated. And if you aren’t a uni student then starting shouting on their behalf. They need you.

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