Since schools closed we have seen excellent practice of schools going above and beyond to ensure that their Free School Meal children still receive this entitlement by providing packed lunches, staff making and delivering food parcels, and school kitchens remaining open to cook meals to be collected.  The announcement from the Department of Education on 31 March 2020 that vouchers for supermarkets will be available for families who have children in receipt of Free School Meals provides a life raft for families struggling to stay afloat at this challenging time.  It may also go some way to easing the burden on head teachers who have worked relentlessly over the past few weeks to ensure that their most vulnerable families are cared for at this challenging time.

Families will have access to £15 a week per child, an increase of £3 on the usual Free School Meal amount, and can choose from a range of different supermarkets.  Schools can opt to have the voucher codes sent out electronically via email, or if families do not have computer or internet access cards can be posted direct to homes.  It is brilliant that at a time of added family stress and financial uncertainty steps are being taken to ensure that food is not an additional worry.

However, whilst this initiative will go some way towards supporting families during this unprecedented time it also raises some broader questions about food provision, food security and child poverty within our society.

In amongst all of the news bulletins last week came an update from the Department of Work and Pensions on ‘Households Below Average Income’ (HBAI).  This annual analysis of low income households shows that over the past 12 months 100,000 more children in the UK are growing up in poverty, and therefore that there are currently 4.2 million children in our society living in families that are struggling to keep their heads above water.  Importantly, of the 4.2 million children in the UK who are currently growing up in poverty, 72% of them are living in a working household.  Put simply, this may mean that they are not eligible for or in receipt of Free School Meals and therefore do not have access to this new voucher initiative.

A further added complication with this voucher system is that schools are not being provided with any money to provide vouchers or food to children during the upcoming Easter holiday.  We know that holiday hunger is already a significant issue within our society. Estimates suggest that 3 million children are at risk of going hungry during the school holidays.  This issue is already well-documented and we have seen an increase in holiday provision, some of which has been funded through the Department for Education, in recent years to address this.  Children’s hunger will not pause because it is the Easter holidays, families incomes will not suddenly increase, and it is disappointing that the opportunity to ensure that families are supported during school holidays has not been addressed by the Department for Education through this scheme which now has a mechanism in place to do so.

The voucher scheme is also limiting for families.  It limits them to particular supermarket chains, and this may result in a number of difficulties that could have been easily avoided.  For some, it will mean that they cannot use their local low-cost supermarket to buy food because it is not signed up to the scheme.  It will also mean smaller shops or delivery schemes – businesses that themselves are being placed under enormous strain in the present time – are inaccessible to families. Instead, families may be forced to travel further to get to an eligible supermarket, adding preventable transport costs and potentially increasing their risk of contracting COVID-19. For those already isolating, the good will of friends, family, or neighbours may be stretched if they are being asked to redeem food vouchers from supermarkets that are unnecessarily out of their way.  Direct payments to families via the child benefit system would give families a small amount of choice, at a time when options are limited.

Lastly, this continues to place the onus on schools, and in particular head teachers, to manage food provision for their Free School Meal pupils.  This is not just as straightforward as ordering vouchers

online but negotiating with current catering contractors and working within the realms of existing service level agreements.  There is a potential tension between this voucher system and pre-existing contracts that schools have and the Department for Education have not issued clear guidance around this issue which will ensure consistent provision for all.  It has already been documented that Free School Meal provision is variable in terms of what children actually receive and this has been highlighted over the past week.  In among the brilliant practice we have seen examples over the past week of packed lunches provided which do not fulfil school food guidelines and are neither filling nor nutritious.  The current guidance means that there are a significant number of families who will not receive a voucher at all and whilst some may be fortunate and receive a well-balanced nutritious lunch others will be in receipt of a very limited range of lunches items. Many families will continue to be left without any choice about what they receive.

At a time of uncertainty for all, with increasing job losses, business closures and strained family finances, it is more important than ever that we work together and have policies that eradicate child hunger. We support the campaign of Child Poverty Action Group to increase child benefit at this time to support all families https://cpag.org.uk/sites/default/files/files/policypost/CPAG%20COVID-19%20briefing.pdf

We do not have a shortage of food, but too many families in our society have a shortage of money which affects their access to food, and this is being exacerbated by the current situation that we all face. 

Child poverty figures for the UK are a scar on our nation’s conscience and there is a very real risk that COVID-19 will worsen an already outrageous situation.  In a country like ours we need to ensure that all children have enough to eat, all year round.