By Prof. Michael Winter
I don’t often watch football. I used to enjoy playing but that was many years ago and somehow I just much prefer watching rugby these days, maybe because that’s a sport I never did play. Be that as it may, on Sunday evening I did tune into BBC 1 and watch Manchester United take on Liverpool in the fourth round of the FA Cup. And I was prompted to do so in part because I wanted to see Marcus Rashford MBE. He did not disappoint, scoring one goal and making another with a superb pass. He is some player for sure. He is also perhaps the most prominent celebrity name in the Covid food story, leading fund raising efforts to support children in poverty with food; and at the same time taking on the Government over free school meals, most recently successfully challenging the quality of some food parcels. In this respect, Rashford is following in the footsteps of other celebrities, notably Jamie Oliver who, as long ago as 2006, highlighted quality issues with regard to school canteens. Back then, it was the Compass Group under fire and it so happens that the miscreant highlighted by Rashford over food parcels was Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass. Compass Group plc may not be a well-known name but they are a FTSE 100 company and a global player in catering. As the Guardian points out:
‘Catering services are typically fragmented between many small providers, but Compass has profited from being one of the few catering companies with global scale and 550,000 employees. … The pandemic has also dented Compass’s profits as canteens in offices, hospitals and military bases have remained shut around the world. Compass’s earnings before tax fell by 85% in the year to 30 September 2020 to £210m.’
There can be no doubt that the food parcel that caused such offence was sub-standard – the photograph went viral and does not need reproducing here – but I have just a little sympathy for companies, big or small, trying to adapt to fast changing policy demands.
I remember some academic colleagues back at the start of the pandemic writing to the Prime Minister suggesting that food rationing should be introduced, which I interpreted as headline- grabbing shorthand for more controls and a clear strategic policy within the food system. To me, and I would welcome feedback on this, the Marcus Rashford story highlights a failure of strategy within the inevitable policy intervention in the food system during this crisis. We have a situation where Government has intervened massively in the economy to an extent unprecedented since the Second World War, but neither the institutional architecture nor the nature of the policy deliberation process comes anywhere near what was put in place around the food system in 1940. And it was a very sophisticated, perhaps overly bureaucratic, set of interventions which certainly involved the farming and food industries directly in shaping and implementing policy.
I can’t resist just finishing on a footballing note. The football league was, of course, suspended from 1940 to 1945 but in the first season of its resumption in 1946/47 the champions were none other Liverpool and the runners up Manchester United! Plus ça change!