Over the past few days, images and photos have circulated of lunch parcels delivered for children who are eligible for free school meals. Every child deserves quality nutrition, and the standard of these school meals shown on social media is not acceptable. We are committed to working with schools and their caterers to ensure that they are providing high quality lunches.

Below we outline some commonly asked questions on the National Voucher Scheme and lunch parcels, as well as any additional information you might need for your school or child.

National Voucher Scheme

What is the national voucher scheme?

It is an online service for schools, allowing them to place orders for supermarket gift cards on behalf of parents and carers with children eligible for free school meals. These are worth £15 a week per child and families can receive codes by email to redeem themselves, or as a gift card provided by post, collection or delivery to families without internet access.

As well as using the national voucher scheme, schools will continue to have the option of providing food to eligible pupils through a lunch parcel, through a caterer or food provider, or by locally arranged solutions. This could include providing vouchers for a local shop or supermarket. The Department will reimburse costs for local vouchers up to £15.

When will the national scheme launch?

Schools will be able to order vouchers from week commencing 18 January. Any support provided since 4 January 2021 through lunch parcels or locally arranged vouchers can be claimed back from Department for Education. Schools can choose not to use the national scheme but continue providing these lunch parcels or local vouchers.

How will the national voucher scheme work this time?

Schools have the freedom to decide on the best approach for their pupils and families with a range of options which include lunch parcels, locally-purchased vouchers or the Department for Education’s national voucher scheme.

If your school is providing vouchers through the national voucher, they will email or post a 16-digit eCode that you can redeem online from a selection of supermarket ‘eGift cards’.

Alternatively, if you do not have an email address or access to the internet, your school can print off the voucher, or ‘eGift card’, and post it to your home address, or arrange a collection or delivery if easy and safe to do so.

Take the eGift card in-store and present it at the till to pay for food and groceries up to the value of the eGift card. This can be presented at the till in-store either on a smartphone screen or printed on a piece of paper, just like a gift card.

Which supermarkets are included?

Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrison’s, Iceland, the Company Shop Group, Waitrose, Mc Colls and M&S are signed up to the scheme and we are keen to work with a wide range of supermarkets to encourage them to join – this involves them having the right infrastructure to process gift cards.

Can schools choose which supermarkets they get vouchers for?

Yes. Schools and parents can select the most convenient supermarket. Where the supermarkets included in the scheme are not the most convenient or appropriate for the family, schools can provide local solutions to make sure eligible children get a free meal – including buying vouchers for other shops that are more convenient for their families to visit, for which they will be reimbursed.

Will I be able to use the same account details for the national voucher scheme or will I need to re-register?

All schools received an email from Edenred on 13-14 January, with details of how to reset their password or, if they had not used the scheme before, activate their account. Schools will be able to order vouchers from week commencing 18 January.

If a school has not received an email, they should complete Edenred’s online change request form. It can take up to four working days to authenticate these requests.

Can schools providing lunch parcels also be a part of the national voucher scheme?
Any support provided since 4 January 2021 through lunch parcels or locally arranged vouchers can be claimed back from the Department for Education.

Schools who have previously provided lunch parcels to eligible pupils at home may decide to provide vouchers instead. Schools can also continue to provide lunch parcels if they would like to do that. Vouchers will only be available through the national voucher scheme from the week commencing 18 January.

What should vouchers be spent on?

Families are free to select the most appropriate lunch for their child. When selecting products, we encourage families to consider health and nutrition. The school food standards and NHS Eat Well may act as a useful guide for families.

Vouchers cannot be used for age-restricted items, such as alcohol, cigarettes or lottery tickets.

Why can’t you just give people £30 to buy their own food?

We know that many schools do not want to deal with cash – especially during a pandemic – so vouchers and food parcels are the most effective and flexible solution.

Schools can use our topped up funding to provide local vouchers worth £15 per child per week, giving families the flexibility to use these where it is most convenient for them and on healthy, nutritious items of their choice.

The advantages of schools providing a lunch parcel or meal include:

  • the ability to keep in touch with their more vulnerable families while many of them are staying at home
  • the food must be nutritious and varied range in line with guidance
  • provision can be set up quickly using the experience caterers will have of delivering parcels
  • reduces the risk of food waste.

Lunch Parcels

How do I know if my child is eligible for Free School Meals?

Eligibility criteria to check if your child may be eligible for free school meals can be found on Gov.uk here.

If someone has recently become eligible for free school meals, we advise contacting the child’s school in order to confirm eligibility. Schools and local authorities are able to quickly confirm eligibility using the Department’s electronic Eligibility Checking System.

For families facing hardship, further government support is available through the Covid Winter Grant Scheme for families struggling as a result of coronavirus (COVID-19). If families need urgent help, they can contact their local council to find out what services are available in their area.

How do you oversee the quality of lunch parcels if you are not involved in these contracts? What action can you take?

Our guidance has been developed and produced alongside the Lead Association for Catering in Education (LACA) as well as Public Health England. It provides clear, general principles for putting together a lunch parcel which will allow parents and carers to prepare simple and healthy lunches for their children at home each week.

The government sets clear guidelines and standards for lunch parcels and we expect these to be followed. We are working with industry representative bodies to ensure that we are sharing examples of good practice and that suppliers are aware of the standards we have set for lunch parcels.

Where there are examples of suppliers not meeting the guidelines, we will not hesitate to investigate further.

We are also working with LACA to update guidance to reflect the additional funding available for food parcels.

What will an investigation involve?

The Children’s Minister confirmed she would be looking into this matter and met with private school food provider Chartwells to discuss the food hampers seen on social media. During the national lockdown, schools can access additional funding which brings the total amount available for food parcels to £15 per week per eligible child. Chartwells have confirmed they will improve standards and we will continue to monitor the quality of free school meal parcels.

The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson and the Minister for Children, Vicky Ford, met with the leading school food suppliers and caterers to insist on urgent action to make sure lunch parcels meet the standards we expect.

We have worked closely with industry representative bodies to identify recommended contents for lunch parcels and believe that the vast majority are high quality. We continue to liaise with representatives to bring forward examples of good practices.

What should a school do if they do not believe food parcels being provided by their supplier meets the guidance?

Should a school become concerned about the standard of lunch parcels being provided by their supplier, they should speak to whoever holds the contract with the supplier. Contracts are agreed between suppliers and the contract holder – whether that be the school directly, local authorities or multi-academy trust and so they are best placed to know the whether the supplier is meeting the terms they agreed to.

What should a parent do if they do not believe lunch parcels being provided to them meets the guidance?

Any parent concerned about the standards of their free school meal parcel should speak directly with their school or educational setting in the first instance. We ask schools to work collaboratively with their school food suppliers to ensure high standards are in place. If the contract is held at MAT or Local Authority level we ask that the school engage with the contract holder to ensure the contract expectations are upheld. We have also urged schools, academy trusts and councils to take robust action, including cancelling a contract where necessary.

If a parent remains dissatisfied with the response from their school and caterer, they can inform the department by calling the Department for Education helpline at 0800 046 8687.

Can schools receive additional funding for lunch parcels?

Yes. Schools can provide lunch parcels using their expected funding for benefits related free school meals, and claim additional funding up to £3.50 per eligible pupil, per week.

How much food should people expect and what should people expect to receive?

Lunch parcels can be an effective way to provide free school meals support while eligible children are learning at home. They are intended to provide the lunchtime meal that these pupils would typically receive in school. These lunch parcels are not intended to be food for a whole family or to last the whole day. The government has topped up available funding to ensure £15 is available to support each eligible child each week.

Guidance on free school meals has been produced by the Lead Association for Catering in Education, Public Health England and the Department for Education (DfE). It sets out some general principles for putting together a lunch parcel which will allow parents and carers to prepare simple and healthy lunches for their children at home across the week – they should:

  • contain food items rather than pre-prepared meals due to food safety considerations
  • minimise the fridge and freezer space that schools and families will need to store foods
  • contain items which parents can use to prepare healthy lunches for their child/children across the week
  • not rely on parents having additional ingredients at home to prepare meals
  • not contain items restricted under the school food standards
  • cater for pupils who require special diets, for example, allergies, vegetarians or religious diets - schools should ensure there are systems in place to avoid cross-contamination
  • contain appropriate packaging sizes for household use, rather than wholesale sizes.

Should the food amount to £30?

During the national lockdown, our funding for schools to cover benefits-related free school meals equates to up to £15 per week per eligible child. £30 would be for two weeks, or two children.

Schools are already receiving their usual free school meals funding (around £11.50 per eligible pupil per week) and can claim for additional funding worth £3.50 per week for each eligible pupil to take it to a total of £15 – the increase is to cover any additional cost incurred as a result of not purchasing food in bulk, which is what caterers would ordinarily to do when providing lunches in school kitchens.

Will children still receive support over February half-term?

As was the case over Christmas, vulnerable families will continue to receive meals and other essentials over February half term via councils through the £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme launched last year.

The Covid Winter Grant Scheme helped struggling families pay for food and bills and has ensured children are given nutritious lunches when schools have been closed.

The Prime Minister has been clear that no child will ever go hungry as a result of the pandemic. He thanks Marcus Rashford for his letter and will reply soon.

What wider support is the Government providing to address poverty?

It is essential the children are families are supported during this difficult time, and we will continue to work with Public Health England and the Lead Association for Catering in England to ensure that nutritious and healthy free school meals are available for children that need them.

We know that for families facing hardship as a result of Covid-19, the past nine months have been incredibly challenging. As a result, we have ensured that extra government support is available through the Covid Winter Grant Scheme. Funding has been ring-fenced, with 80% earmarked to support with food and bills which will cover families till the end of March 2021.

The Government has also provided a further £16m funding for food distribution charities this year such as the Holiday Activities and Food Programme. This landmark programme has provided healthy food and enriching, engaging activities to disadvantaged and vulnerable children since 2018, expanding across England in 2021. It will cover Easter, Summer and Christmas in 2021 and will cost £220m. This unprecedented scheme will be available to children in every local authority, building on the success of this summer, where 50,000 children were supported across 17 different local authorities.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

The contents of some of the food parcels we’ve all seen were clearly unacceptable and we will not tolerate substandard packages being provided to children. That’s why this afternoon, I met with the leading school food suppliers and caterers to insist on urgent action to make sure parcels meet the standards we expect.

I know there are many examples of good lunch parcels and I’m grateful to those caterers who are working hard with schools to provide nutritious, balanced lunches for children.

Where this isn’t happening we’ve set out a clear process for parents to raise concerns so appropriate action can be taken, by contacting their schools in the first instance or calling the Department helpline. We have also urged schools, academy trusts and councils to take robust action, including cancelling a contract where necessary.

Since January 4, schools have also been able to arrange vouchers for local shops and supermarkets which can be given directly to parents, and we will reimburse and backdate these costs. Our national voucher scheme will reopen on Monday.

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