Image of government Free School Meal guidance webpage
Image of government Free School Meal guidance webpage

A national letter to Gavin Williamson MP, Secretary of State for Education, which calls on the Government to take decisive action with local councils to combat the problem of children going hungry in school holidays, has been signed by York’s Labour councillors.

During the current school closures, schools have been instructed to take advantage of a free school meal (FSM) voucher scheme so that those students normally entitled to a free meal do not go hungry. However, the scheme, outsourced by the government to French corporate services company Edenred, has been beset with problems, with many schools having serious problems accessing the online system and parents finding themselves unable to download the vouchers.

These issues have brought the problem of food hunger into sharp focus, and councillors are arguing for a recognition that children must not go hungry, and that the scheme must extend to school holidays, when until now there has been no guarantee of a daily hot meal for those children experiencing poverty.

Councillor Bob Webb, Labour’s spokesperson for children’s services, explained: “This national letter addresses the problem of holiday hunger by calling on the Government to recognise that child hunger is unacceptable all the time, not just during term-time.  While it calls for the Government to cover school holiday FSM provision during the Covid-19 outbreak, it also proposes making this permanent, as long as holiday hunger exists for pupils in York and across the country.  I will be writing to York’s two MPs to ask for their support in pressing the Secretary of State to agree to this proposal”.

While schools have been encouraged to develop individual responses in the provision of FSM, problems with the national voucher provider’s online system has led to problems for many schools.  Some schools are providing hot meals or food parcels on site for parents and carers to collect, while some are simply transferring a cash sum of £15 per week per child. 

Councillors say generally alternatives to the national voucher scheme have been more efficient, but 75% of local schools are now signed up to the Government’s voucher scheme.  The impact of that system being overloaded could have a huge impact on some children, if food vouchers are delayed even for a short time, they say.

Cllr. Webb said the key education focus at the present time both for schools and for the Government should be supporting a consistent supply of decent quality food, the continued education of all school pupils and ensuring the health and safety of pupils and staff both during, and after school closures end. In addition, councils must be backed financially to respond to increased levels of domestic abuse to help victims fleeing domestic violence as well as their children.

“The letter we’ve signed stresses the important point that the Government must be 100% confident that the safety of pupils and staff isn’t compromised by the re-opening of schools, whenever that is.  Local councils should play a coordinating role in planning for school re-openings, which will look different in different areas, depending on local circumstances. 

“The impact of Covid-19 is so significant in so many ways, and the Government must respond to reduce those impacts on children in whatever ways it can”.

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