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Weekly shopping vouchers worth £15 to spend at supermarkets while schools are closed due to coronavirus

Children eligible for free school meals will benefit from a national voucher scheme allowing them to continue to access meals whilst they stay at home.

Schools can now provide every eligible child with a weekly shopping voucher worth £15 to spend at supermarkets while schools are closed due to coronavirus.

Schools can continue to provide meals for collection or delivery themselves, but where this is not possible, the scheme will allow schools to provide vouchers to families electronically, or as a gift card for those without internet access.

The vouchers can be spent on food at a range of shops including Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S, with the Department working to get more shops to join the scheme as soon as possible.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

I recognise that the unprecedented action this Government is taking to protect the country from coronavirus, including closing schools, is dramatically affecting the lives of many families.

I want to thank schools for the support they are continuing to provide to families during such uncertain times.

No child should go hungry as a result of the measures introduced to keep people at home, protect the NHS and save lives. That’s why we are launching this scheme to make sure children who usually benefit from free school meals still have access to healthy and nutritious meals while they are not attending school.

Parents will receive the voucher through their child’s school, which can then be redeemed online via a code, or sent to their house as a gift card and used at supermarkets across the country.

This delivers on the Government’s commitment to provide ongoing support for the 1.3 million children that would receive benefits-related free school meals at their school.

Today (Tuesday 31 March) schools will be emailed by the Department for Education’s chosen supplier, Edenred. Schools will then either be able to:

  1. Order vouchers individually online and have a code sent via email to each family. The family can then show the code on their phone at the supermarket; or
  2. Arrange a bulk order of multiple codes and receive an excel spreadsheet to help schools organise sending on to a family, or create an eGift card for a preferred supermarket to be posted to a family if parents cannot get online.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), said:

This is welcome news for schools and families. This new system fills in one of the remaining gaps in the complex jigsaw puzzle of provision that has arisen from the Covid-19 crisis. There may be some kinks to work out of the scheme, especially as it has been developed at pace, but at least there is some certainty available now.

The government has done the right thing by ensuring that vouchers can be used at a range of different shops, making it more practical for families to use the vouchers. Many schools had already developed their own schemes and local solutions, so it is good to see that they will be able to continue these if they’re working well or adopt the new scheme if they feel that would be better. We’ll be working with the government to make sure this system works as effectively as everyone hopes it will.

The total value of vouchers available per eligible child per week exceeds the rate paid to schools for free school meals, recognising that families will not be buying food in bulk and may therefore incur higher costs.

The Department for Education has also published new guidance on free school meals to help schools and parents prepare.

Mike Coupe, Sainsbury’s Chief Executive, said:

Over the last few weeks we have been working closely with the government to get food to those who need it the most. We have introduced measures to support NHS workers, elderly and vulnerable customers and keep our customers and colleagues safe. We are proud to be involved in the government’s brilliant initiative, to help provide meals to school children as part of our ongoing commitment to feed the nation.

Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young Peoples Board, said:

No young person should have to go hungry and ensuring vulnerable pupils, including those on free school meals and with special educational needs and disabilities, are provided for is a top priority for councils and schools.

The LGA has been calling for a national scheme to avoid each local area setting up its own arrangements, so today’s announcement is good news.

There are already an estimated 1.3 million young people entitled to free school meals, and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has meant that there are now a large number of families signing up to benefits.

We want to work with the Government to ensure that struggling families are able to access the scheme as soon as possible. The Government should also consider extending to voucher scheme to cover families over the school holidays.

The Liberal Democrats have called on the UK Government to ensure children on free school meals will continue to receive vouchers over the Easter holidays. 

The call follows confirmation from the Welsh Liberal Democrat Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, that children in Wales will also be offered free school meals during the break.

Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Layla Moran said: 

Pupils on free school meals are some of the most vulnerable in our society and often rely on schools to provide their meals. With families struggling at this difficult time there is a real concern these children could go hungry. I want to thank my colleague Kirsty Williams for leading the way on this in Wales. The UK Government must now urgently follow suit and ensure money is available for this to happen right across the whole of the UK.

The Government has listened to our plea that children on free school meals must not go hungry. This voucher scheme will get cash quickly to struggling families and I would encourage other supermarkets to sign up. Meanwhile, school canteens must remain open so that vulnerable children still at school can access a nutritious hot meal.

We now need reassurances on the detail. Are there participating retailers in every part of the country, particularly in rural areas? How will schools that are delivering food directly to students ensure that meals are healthy, balanced, and cater for children’s dietary and religious requirements? The Government must also recognise the exceptional strain on household budgets and extend the scheme to cover the Easter holidays.

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

The NEU is relieved that the Department for Education has clarified that it will meet the full costs incurred by schools for providing Free School Meals and getting them to children who are at home. We hope this will cover any hidden costs that arise as schools work out the best way to operate during shut down.

We’re pleased that the national portal for schools - with its ability to get gift vouchers to eligible families - is an option for schools, rather than a mandatory model for how to provide school meals. Offering this as an option recognises that many schools have worked so hard to get alternative arrangements in place to cater for their local community. Many schools are advertising free food for any in the local community who are hungry.

We think central government must work with local authorities to help co-ordinate local information, so that local authorities are not overwhelmed by queries from parents, charities and other agencies.

It is disappointing that Government has chosen not to make sure that free school meals vouchers are available over the Easter fortnight. This isn’t a normal school holiday and we are asking teachers and support staff to volunteer to work, in support of the NHS. Families on low incomes will need access to school meals during this fortnight, particularly as food banks are seriously overstretched and it is much harder to shop affordably at the moment.

Recent government statistics showed that 4.2m children are trapped in poverty – this is likely to rise when the current public health crisis subsides. Food vouchers might be the only realistic and manageable intervention for many schools at the moment, but we mustn’t normalise the idea of food provision to poorer families. We must banish food poverty once the health crisis is over, through better wages and secure employment.

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