Following the Department of Education announcement on March 31, that a National Free School Meal Voucher scheme to the value of £15 would be available for families who have children in receipt of Free School Meals, it was announced on April 4 that the scheme would be extended to cover the Easter Holidays.

This will be a much needed lifeline for the families of an estimated 3 million children who are at risk of going hungry during the school holidays and is indeed welcomed by Children North East. It may also ease some of the pressure on school staff that have worked tirelessly to support their families during these uncertain times.

However, there are still glaring holes in the National Free School Meal Voucher scheme, which continue to present families with limited choices and difficult decisions.

Research from the Food Foundation has found that 63% of households with children (aged 8-16) who are eligible for free school meals are receiving a substitute. Whilst this has increased from 54% two weeks ago, this is concerning as it means 507,000 children are not receiving the free school meals on which they relied before the lockdown.

Vulnerable families at greater risk

It is well evidenced that one of the consequences of poverty is poorer health outcomes. That means the most vulnerable families are at greater risk during this epidemic. Whilst schools are able to share the Free School Meal vouchers with families either via email or post, the vouchers can only be spent online at two of the six supermarkets.

This raises the question of how parents, who should be shielding due to a health condition, or are single parents and do not want to risk taking their children to the supermarket, are accessing supermarkets. As already highlighted in our previous Free School Meals blog, without access to the full range of supermarkets and local convenience stores, some families may be risking their health and incurring additional financial costs to access supermarkets.

It is also disappointing to see the Department for Education has still not made provision for those children on Universal Free School Meals. Universal Free School Meals are available to all children under the age of eight, regardless of household income. However, during Covid-19, only families in receipt of certain benefits will continue to receive free school meals. Over one million people have signed up to Universal Credit since March 16 and consequently, more families are being pulled into poverty.

Missing out on nutrition

With a five week waiting period, there will be children who are now eligible for free school meals missing out on nutrition they need each day. During such a difficult time, a free school meal may provide these families with a vital lifeline and one less worry.

Despite schools applying immediately after the voucher scheme was implemented, many have reported still not being issued with the vouchers and receiving phone calls from anxious families. Whilst there is a promise that vouchers will be back-dated, if received late, what happens in the short-term? Families continue to need to eat. To try and combat this, many schools have gone above and beyond, continuing to supply food packages to families and will continue to do so, until the vouchers arrive. However, this is placing extreme pressures on schools who are already experiencing budget cuts and very little guidance on how to support their families during the epidemic.

At a time of national crisis, which is putting immense pressures on families and their finances, it is simply not acceptable that children continue to go hungry.