This February marks a year in my role as Children and Families Minister and what a challenging year it has been for us all as a country.
After such a difficult year for everyone, the latest lockdown has put parents and carers under even greater pressure, as many children return to learning at home while families balance many competing responsibilities. I know that for some parents an added worry has been ensuring that their children can continue to access free school meals while learning at home.
Schools know their families and communities best and have the freedom to decide on the right approach to support their pupils. Schools now have a range of options to support children who are eligible for benefits related free school meals, which include lunch parcels as well as local vouchers or the Department for Education’s national voucher scheme, which reopened on 18 January. Schools can also choose to mix and match choosing an option of parcels and vouchers.
Vouchers are worth £15 a week per child and there are various ways families can get hold of them. They can choose for their school to send codes by email to redeem the vouchers themselves or opt for a gift card by post or collection if they don’t have internet access. The national voucher scheme provider Edenred has published a step-by-step guide on how to use the vouchers.
During the last lockdown many schools chose to use parcels, not vouchers, as it kept them in touch with families and children. Many families and children appreciated this personal contact with the school. The contracts for school catering are each organised at a local level as different schools have different approaches to how they want to provide lunches. The Government has increased the funding for food parcels but it’s important that if schools choose to use a food parcel that children get a decent box.
Whichever option schools choose, we need to make sure that children get the best quality food. I know there have been instances of lunch parcels which did not meet this high standard and I have been working closely with school caterers to improve standards, especially with the extra funding.
I’ve seen first-hand the enormous importance of a nutritious lunch in helping children concentrate while they learn and I am determined that children should get the same standard of food while they are learning at home.
I know how hard schools, including school chefs and dinnertime staff, are working to make sure children and young people who are learning at home receive the food they need. I am hugely grateful for their outstanding efforts at such a challenging time to support their local communities.
If you are at all concerned about your child’s school lunch parcel, there is support available. In the first instance, you should talk to your child’s school, but if you still have concerns you can contact the DfE helpline on 0800 046 8687.
The national voucher scheme, lunch parcels and local voucher arrangements are in place during term-time until at least 8 March, ahead of any further decisions about wider opening of schools. However, I also want to be absolutely clear that the government’s support for children and families does not stop there.
As was the case over Christmas, vulnerable families can continue to receive support during school holidays, including food and help with other essentials such as energy and bills from their local council through the £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme launched last year.
If you and your family are struggling and need to access the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, I really encourage you to get in touch with your local authority directly to find out more.
To answer some of the most common questions on free school meal arrangements during this time, the Department for Education has also published a Q&A blog.